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Panel sides with O's, not Johnson; Catcher gets 9% raise, but not $5.1 million he sought in arbitration; $3.6M ruling still club high; Wren, loser last year, hopes 'no hard feelings'


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles were awarded their first significant decision of spring yesterday when a three-judge panel ruled against catcher Charles Johnson in salary arbitration.

The verdict assigns Johnson a $3.6 million salary instead of the $5.1 million he had sought. Johnson earned $3.3 million last season when he hit .218 with the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers. The 9.1 percent raise still places the four-time Gold Glove winner among the upper tier of his experience level.

"We felt good about the offer we made," said Orioles general manager Frank Wren. "We felt we had a solid case and made a solid presentation. Charles achieved his salary status because of the process last year."

Last spring Wren was Marlins assistant general manager when Johnson beat the club for a raise of more than $3 million.

The Orioles, who made little attempt at avoiding last Thursday's hearing, successfully contended that Johnson's offense -- he hit 19 home runs with 58 RBIs in 459 at-bats -- did not merit compensation at a level typically reserved for players with more gaudy numbers.

Johnson, 27, has played in four complete major-league seasons. Had he received a favorable verdict, Johnson would have gained a record judgment for a position player. New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter gained a $5 million judgment last week. As is, Johnson's loss still represents the largest salary ever assigned an Oriole in arbitration.

Both parties had waited expectantly for a decision that dragged for two days. However, the same panel that heard Johnson's case also deliberated over Minnesota Twins outfielder Matt Lawton, who also lost his case.

Johnson said last week he could accept whatever the outcome. But the loss represented a rare setback for his agent, Scott Boras.

"A year ago, after we lost our case, I walked over to their table and shook Charles' hand," said Wren. "There were no hard feelings. I hope the same sentiment exists on his part. It's just the process you deal with."

Johnson was the Orioles' only arbitration-eligible player. However, the club still faces a May hearing date with Xavier Hernandez over a contract offer it rescinded after a slight tear was discovered in the reliever's rotator cuff.

The Orioles offered Hernandez a two-year, $2.7 million contract and placed him on their 40-man roster before negating the agreement. They contend the deal did not go in force until Hernandez passed a physical, which he failed.

Hernandez, who eventually agreed to a $250,000 contract with the Houston Astros, is seeking damages equal to the difference in the two deals.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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