Nearing prime, Johnson worthy of long-term deal


Don't sign him. Don't even make him another offer. The Orioles couldn't possibly want Charles Johnson, a 28-year-old catcher entering his prime.

All Johnson did last night was hit a three-run homer to give the Orioles a 7-6 lead in the sixth inning, and a two-run shot to give them a 9-7 lead in the eighth.

What's the organization's reaction?

Jayson Werth could have done that?

Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, attempted to portray Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, as the heavy after last night's 11-7 victory over Cleveland, saying that Boras demanded a seven-year contract before negotiations broke off in spring training.

Boras dismissed Thrift's claim as "totally inaccurate." Johnson said that he was not aware of any such demand, and repeated that he was seeking a five-year deal -- one that he almost certainly would command as a free agent.

"That's the first I've heard about it," Johnson said, referring to a seven-year demand. "That's something I'm going to have to ask [Boras] about. I'm pretty sure he didn't [ask for seven years]. He would have let me know if he did."

Thrift insisted otherwise.

"I didn't hear five," he said. "I didn't hear anything but seven."

Either way, the Orioles can't be considered serious about re-signing Johnson until they offer him more than three years and an option with deferred money.

If they were smart, they would send Boras a five-year proposal, and make him turn it down.

At least then, for once, they would occupy the high ground.

Johnson and Mike Mussina -- possibly the best battery in baseball -- remain unsigned beyond this season. And Mussina said last night that the outcome of the Johnson talks would influence his own decision about whether to stay in Baltimore.

"If we're not throwing to Charles, who are we throwing to?" Mussina said, referring to the Orioles' pitchers. "That's a factor, a big factor."

If the Orioles lose Johnson, they likely would go with Werth, who will open the season at Double-A, and veteran backup Greg Myers, who is signed through 2001.

Their Triple-A catchers are Willie Morales -- the current backup as Myers recovers from a hamstring injury -- and Tommy Davis. Morales is 27, and Davis turns 27 next month. Neither is a top prospect, and Werth might not be ready by 2001, if he is ever ready at all.

The catcher of the future is the catcher of the present.

The catcher for the next five years should be Johnson.

"He's a power guy," hitting coach Terry Crowley said of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Johnson. "He can hit you a lot of home runs. And we saw tonight that he can knock in runs. The sky's the limit, really.

"I felt like last year, he started to scratch the surface on what he could do. He picked up this spring right where he left off last year. He's comfortable around the clubhouse. He's comfortable with the pitching staff. He feels like he's at home.

"With all these things combined, I think we can see a big year out of Charles -- an All-Star-type year."

Johnson, a defensive specialist, has not batted higher than .251 in a season, hit more than 19 homers or driven in more than 63 runs.

But his newfound comfort level could indeed make a difference -- he had to adjust after getting traded from Florida to Los Angeles in 1998, and then again after moving to the American League last season.

"I see myself growing. I see myself improving," Johnson said. "I'm trying to get better every day, every year. I'm just 28 years old. I've still got some years ahead of me."

But when last we left Johnson, the Orioles had gone to salary arbitration with him for the second straight year rather than split a $500,000 difference.

Boras recalled asking Thrift, "Why are you willing to take the player to arbitration over $500,000?" According to the agent, Thrift replied, "Those things are out of my control."

The long-term discussions?

"When I submitted a contract offer to Scott, he did not counter it," Thrift said, referring to the Orioles' three-year proposal. "He rejected it because the length of contract wasn't satisfactory.

"He said if we didn't have it done by the beginning of the season, he wouldn't negotiate anymore. I was not going to challenge his position. All I can do is take him at his word."

Mr. Boras?

"Prior to the arbitration hearing [in February], Syd indicated he wanted to make a long-term proposal," the agent said. "I said I'd be more than willing to listen to it.

"Then he called me the day of the arbitration and said he wanted to talk about a long-term contract proposal. I said, 'Syd, I'm an attorney. I'm preparing a case. I can't walk into a room without proper preparation.'

"They went after him, saying he's an offensive bust, all the normal things you do in arbitration. [Thrift] then submitted a long-term contract proposal with an option and deferred money.

"I told him jokingly, 'Syd, why didn't you submit this in the hearing?' I wish I could have told the arbitrator that this was the player who two seconds ago was not the equivalent of Mike Lieberthal, who had only played two out of five years [as a regular]."

Boras said that the Orioles never got back to him after that, and Johnson indicated to him that he did not want to negotiate during the season. Johnson, however, said he would indeed be willing to resume talks if the Orioles approached Boras with another offer.

"I'm not saying I wouldn't talk about it," Johnson said. "All that stuff goes through my agent. If he comes to me, I'm willing to listen."

Whenever you're ready, gentlemen.

Charles Johnson deserves a five-year contract.

He should not be Werth-less to his own team.

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