O's, Conine start talks on contract; First baseman's agent finally gets sit-down with club officials; 'It went pretty good'; Kamieniecki, Rhodes seeking to return


The agent for Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine met with club officials for about an hour yesterday in a preliminary round of discussions aimed at keeping the seven-year veteran in Baltimore.

Michael Watkins said the meeting, which included executive vice president John Angelos and director of player personnel Syd Thrift, was both cordial and encouraging.

"My perception was it went pretty good. We got along well. We had a good conversation," said Watkins, who had expressed frustration on Wednesday after failing to hear from Thrift during the general managers meetings in Dana Point, Calif., that ended yesterday.

"We didn't come to any conclusions but we discussed how Jeff could fit in next year and beyond. Both sides would like to see something happen."

Starting today, other teams are allowed to negotiate with all the free agents, including five from the Orioles, and Conine is likely to be targeted after hitting .291 with 13 homers and 75 RBIs. Shedding his role as part-time player after injuries removed Will Clark from the lineup, Conine appeared in 139 games during his first season with the Orioles and proved a bargain at $1.95 million.

"He's kind of anxious," Watkins said. "He's never faced free agency before, but we'll see. He'd like to come back to the Orioles if certain things work out to his advantage. We all agreed that Jeff is a good fit. It's just a matter of getting things worked out."

That procedure becomes more complicated for Watkins with a committee handling the general manager's duties after Frank Wren was fired last month.

"It appears they'll go through their process before making a decision. That could or could not hurt them," Watkins said. "I've never gone through a process like this, so I don't know. They said they'd call me at the beginning of the week, so we'll see. I haven't dealt with a group like this but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt."

Conine has indicated he wants to play on a regular basis next season, and the Orioles aren't in position to make that promise. Clark is expected to return next season, when he'll be paid $5.5 million on the final year of his contract. If the Orioles re-sign Harold Baines, who was traded to Cleveland in late August but wants to end his career here, that would clog the designated hitter's slot. Barring a trade, the outfield is set with B.J. Surhoff in left, Brady Anderson in center and Albert Belle in right.

The Orioles could choose a cheaper alternative to Conine by signing a less-expensive free agent. Ryan Minor would provide another option, though he doesn't play the outfield.

"I told Syd I knew their first priority was hiring a manager and that was going to have some impact on what we did," Watkins said. "I know Jeff likes Grover [Mike Hargrove], and he likes the Orioles. He got along with everybody fine and he likes the city. Providing at-bats can't necessarily be guaranteed, but if the club shows how they can best use him and get him 400 or 500 at-bats, I think he'd like to stay if we can work something out financially. In the grand scheme of salaries, he's a very reasonable guy to sign."

Watkins said no "hard numbers" were discussed yesterday.

"I gave them a range and they didn't fall out of their chairs," he said.

Besides Conine, teams also can begin negotiating with Orioles pitchers Scott Kamieniecki, Arthur Rhodes, Jim Corsi and Mike Fetters.

Rhodes' agent, Dan Horowits, said he expects up to eight teams to contact him today regarding the left-hander. He hasn't spoken with Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos in about a week, but said, "Peter and I will talk. Baltimore is [Rhodes'] first choice."

The only contact Kamieniecki has had with the Orioles was a letter that arrived last Friday stating they wouldn't pick up his option for 2000. Kamieniecki filed for free agency and was told club officials would be speaking with his agent in the near future. Most likely, that conversation will take place next week.

Kamieniecki said he has "no idea" if there's significant interest within the warehouse in retaining him. "I don't know Mike Hargrove very well, or if he has guys he'd like to bring in from Cleveland," Kamieniecki said.

"I know before the season ended, Frank Wren said he'd like to have me back if something could be worked out, but he's gone now. And I don't know what's going to happen with [pitching coach] Bruce Kison. But without a doubt, this would be my first choice. I hope it works out, but the ultimate decision lies in their hands."

Kamieniecki endured two injury-filled seasons since matching his career high with 10 wins in 1997 and being rewarded with a two-year, $6.3 million deal that included an option for 2000. He regained his effectiveness after being moved to the bullpen during the summer and indicated yesterday that he would prefer staying in the same role next season.

"That would be the right way to go," said Kamieniecki, who went 2-4 with a 4.95 ERA in 43 games. "I could try to be a starter again but I have to believe my body wouldn't hold up. It hasn't the last few years. I know the money's not the same, but it's not about the money."

The Orioles did complete one move yesterday, agreeing to a one-year, $300,000 deal with outfielder Derrick May. He hit .265 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in 49 at-bats.

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