Johnson at arbitration table; O's catcher puzzled over facing process for 2nd year in row


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Befuddled over the club's unwillingness to avoid a second arbitration hearing with him in as many years, Orioles catcher Charles Johnson says that win or lose in today's arbitration, he will remember the experience in future negotiations about a possible contract extension.

Johnson, eligible for free agency after this season, will miss the first scheduled workout for pitchers and catchers in order to attend this afternoon's hearing in Tampa, Fla. A three-man panel will side with either Johnson's $5.1 million bid or the club's $4.6 million proposal. There is no middle ground unless the two sides compromise before the case is handed to the panel. Johnson insists that won't happen.

"The decision doesn't really matter as far as me coming back [in 2001]. Just the fact you've got to go is enough," said Johnson. "Once you're there, you're there. The fact is it couldn't get worked out. Why couldn't it? You've got to wonder."

Johnson insists the Orioles never offered the midpoint ($4.85 million) between the two bids, something "I would have strongly considered," he said. As a result, Johnson will sit through a hearing for the third time in as many years.

"When I get in the car to go that way, I'm going to win the case. I figure that [a compromise] could have been done beforehand," said Johnson, who briefly stopped to stow his equipment at the Orioles' spring training headquarters before driving to Tampa.

The Orioles beat Johnson last season when he also sought $5.1 million. The club successfully countered at $3.6 million, a $300,000 raise over his 1998 salary. Acquired Dec. 1, 1998, from the New York Mets in a three-team trade for closer Armando Benitez, Johnson thought the club would approach him about a contract extension. However, the Orioles made no overture last season.

The club recently discussed a three-year framework with Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, but was informed Johnson would require a five-year deal.

"If they want to talk to us about a multi-year contract, it's going to have to be a five-year deal from our end because of Charles' age [28]," Boras said. "These guys are in great demand. There aren't many catchers who can catch 1,000 innings. They said they wanted to talk about a three-year plan. We said that really doesn't fit into our view right now."

Syd Thrift, the Orioles vice president of baseball operations, said earlier this month that the club is adopting a wait-and-see approach based upon the progress of catching prospect Jayson Werth.

"I was a little surprised that they gave up Benitez and didn't pursue anything," Johnson said. "I came over here and nothing happened. It sounds like they're really high on Werth and want to bring him up. There's nothing I can really do about it."

Thrift says he believes Werth, 20, might be ready for the major leagues by next season. The Orioles are waiting to see how their former first-round draftee has progressed since suffering a serious wrist injury that limited him inlast season's second half. Johnson, a four-time Gold Glove winner, is coming off a season in which he batted .251 with 16 home runs and 54 RBIs in 135 games. Johnson threw out 39.8 percent of would-be base-stealers as opponents stole only 93 bases, the least allowed by the Orioles in a complete season since 1980.

"To me, when you do that, it's because they're unsure about me. The whole thing comes down to money," says Johnson. "If they feel he can come in and do what I can do and they pay him [the major-league minimum] $200,000, fine. But the longer you wait, the more it costs.

"You risk losing a player doing that sometimes."

Johnson says his demand for a five-year deal is inflexible but wonders whether the Orioles' reluctance to intensify negotiations has anything to do with a long-standing antipathy for his agent. Boras also represented former Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald, who left on bitter terms after 1995. One club source maintains the team will never negotiate a long-term deal with a Boras client. In need of a starting pitcher this winter, the Orioles never engaged Boras in talks about free-agent clients Omar Olivares, Darren Oliver and Andy Benes.

"To me, it says something to be upset about an issue that happened years ago and to let it affect the team now," Johnson says. "I'm the player and he's the agent. He's working for me."

Johnson says since his trade from the Florida Marlins in 1998, he has not allowed himself to become emotionally attached to an organization. The stance has served him well; the Orioles technically are his third organization since first being dealt 21 months ago.

"If I was still with the Marlins I'd wonder why they didn't want to keep me after all those years. Now, I look at it as a business-type thing," he said.

Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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