Johnson caught in O's trap of silence


Charles Johnson has been in a similar place before. But right now, with the Orioles' front office receiving more calls than the Home Shopping Network, he has no idea where he's going.

With the breaking point rapidly approaching for the Orioles to decide whether they are contenders, beyond repair or somewhere in between, no pending free agent finds himself at the vortex of more professional and personality issues than the team's unassuming, rifle-armed catcher.

My first thought is I'd like to be back here I next year," Johnson said. ."I like it here. It's a good group of guys here. I enjoy playing here."

But nothing is that simple come contract time in the Orioles' warehouse.

Johnson has been well-served by super-agent Scott Boras, who successfully argued the largest percentage raise in arbitration history for his client after his 1997 season for the world champion Florida Marlins. However, Boras and Orioles owner Peter Angelos share an acrimonious relationship dating to Boras' handling of pitcher Ben McDonald's scuttled contract talks in 1996.

Boras bows to no one within the game. Angelos considers himself a master negotiator, among other things. Ka-boom.

As long ago as last summer, a high-ranking Orioles official pre-dicted Angelos would never sign a Boras client to an extension. Angelos recently reiterated the stance to associates, a source familiar with the owner's thinking said.

"They knew Scott was my agent when they traded for me. They knew who they would have to deal with. That's what I don't understand," Johnson said. "They gave up a top closer [Armando Benitez] to get me. They knew I was arbitration-eligible and when I would be a free agent.

Traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in May before coming to the Orioles in a three-team trade Dec. l, 1998, Johnson refuses to predict what will happen, but he is keenly aware of the possibilities.

"I try not to read anything into" the lack of communication with Boras, said Johnson. "Just as nothing's being said, in a matter of no time it could be done. You never know what might happen."

The Orioles could sign Johnson to a contract extension, but that is unlikely because of the minimum five-year deal he seeks. Angelos still wears bruises from the five-year deal he awarded catcher Chris Hoiles in 1995 and center fielder Brady Anderson after the 1997 season. Even the bargain signing of Scott Erickson to a five-year, $32 million deal in 1998 now causes concern because of the pitcher's approaching status as a player with enough service time to veto any trade.

The Orioles could allow Johnson to play out the season, then file for free agency. Once it gets that far, however, it's unlikely Johnson would return. Most likely, the Orioles could trade Johnson to a contender with catching concerns, such as the St. Louis Cardinals or the Chicago White Sox.

At a time when the Orioles insist they will become younger, Johnson, 28, is the youngest starter on the game's most veteran roster. Polished defensively, he remains a maturing offensive player. Aside from Mike Mussina and Erickson, he is their most marketable player.

As the Orioles ponder whether -- and how -- they can sign Mussina, the Orioles' ace has repeatedly said the retention of Johnson and shortstop Mike Bordick would factor into his decision. Mussina, one of the game's best at holding runners, remembers those days when teams ran wild on Hoiles after a degenerative hip condition became obvious to all.

Johnson represents a deterrent to track meets, allowing pitchers to concentrate more on the plate than first base. Scott Kamieniecki led the American League two years ago in pickoff attempts per runner. Earlier this season, three Orioles starters were among the five least prone to throw over.

Given the scope of contributions and the absence of organizational depth at their positions, it could be argued that Johnson and Bordick are now the Orioles' most indispensable players. Johnson has only augmented his worth with a pace that projects to a career offensive season, taking a .278 average, 12 home runs and 30 RBIs into last night.

Johnson's arm may be golden, but there are those in the front office who detect tarnish. He does not frame pitches well, they remind, and calling a game is not considered his strength. The day after Johnson's arbitration loss, an Orioles executive reminded that several catchers caught more innings last season. No mention was made of Johnson's 27 consecutive starts that left him limp by August.

Boras was among the first to persuasively argue defense within an arbitration hearing. The Orioles countered that Johnson's offense is unexceptional and inconsistent and were able to beat their player each of the past two years, leaving the catcher with salaries of $3.6 million and $4.6 million.

There has been no thaw in the relationship between Boras and Angelos since February. No contract talks have occurred since Syd Thrift, vice president of baseball operations, made a three-year, $18 million offer at the Tampa arbitration hearing that was quickly rejected. Boras likewise offered to halve their differences to avoid a hearing. But when Thrift told the agent he needed Angelos' authorization, Boras' response struck Thrift as disrespectful. The hearing proceeded, saving the club $250,000 over a compromise.

Many expect Johnson to be among the first to go should Angelos authorize a purge. The Orioles don't deny this, leaving Thrift to ask rhetorically, "If we trade Charles, then who catches?"

Certainly no one in the system. To trade Johnson, Orioles officials concede they must receive catching in return. (Thrift covets Cleveland catcher Einar Diaz, who might be had in a deal for Erickson. St. Louis could include Mike Matheny in a package for Johnson.) Greg Myers has made a career as a platoon player. Willie Morales was signed as a minor-league free agent before making his major-league debut when Myers began the season on the disabled list.

Though Thrift projected prospect Jayson Werth as Johnson's possible successor last February, the former first-round draft choice has done little to improve his standing at Double-A Bowie this season, entering the weekend with a .208 average and one home run in 149 at-bats.

"What's the plan today?" asks one clubhouse veteran.

Whatever option the Orioles choose, the least savory is to lose Johnson this winter for draft choices. Benitez, meanwhile, is on a pace for 40 saves with the New York Mets as the Orioles attempt to perform triage on a bullpen that only recently has begun to show consistency. Johnson's quiet wait continues.

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