Continuing what resembles a demolition more than a renovation, the Orioles continued yesterday a purge of their clubhouse by trading closer Mike Timlin to the St. Louis Cardinals only hours before sending catcher Charles Johnson and designated hitter Harold Baines to the Chicago White Sox.
The late-afternoon trade of Timlin, who had a four-year, $16 million contract, brought the Orioles minor-league first baseman Chris Richard and right-handed pitcher Mark Nussbeck, while the combination of Baines and Johnson returned catcher Brook Fordyce and right-handed pitching prospects Miguel Felix, Juan Figueroa and Jason Lakman.
Coupled with Friday's deal that sent shortstop Mike Bordick to the New York Mets for utility player Melvin Mora and three prospects, the maneuvers by Vice President of Baseball Operations Syd Thrift have pared players who will earn a combined $13.85 million this season.
"We're trying to make ourselves better for next year and beyond," said Thrift. "This is part of that process."
In less than two days, the Orioles have sliced three pending free agents and a cumbersome contract in return for three newcomers to their clubhouse and six pitching prospects.
By jettisoning salary, the Orioles may have improved their financial position to pursue pending free-agent pitcher Mike Mussina; however, Mussina promised earlier this season that his decision would be influenced by the team's willingness to also re-sign Johnson and Bordick.
"The priority is to spend money on pitchers. Period," said Thrift.
Teammates bade Baines and Johnson goodbye last night even as some of them hurriedly dressed for a formal charity event held by the players' wives at the Legg Mason building. Part of the festivities included a casino event, but it was Thrift who reveled in dealing.
Thrift conceded he "absolutely" would have pursued Johnson under different circumstances. Instead, the Orioles relinquish their best defensive catcher in at least a generation.
"It's a good thing for me," said Johnson, hitting .294 with a career-high 21 home runs and 55 RBI. "At this point, I have to look at all the positives. The positive is I'm going to a team playing good baseball right now, and hopefully I can go in there and do my part."
The Orioles' divorce from Johnson had been expected since spring training, when the club was unable to compromise on a $500,000 split that landed the parties in an arbitration hearing for the second consecutive year. The Orioles won, but the four-time Gold Glove catcher became resigned to the likelihood that this would be his last season in Baltimore.
A personality clash between Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos and Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, widened the gulf. The Orioles had offered Johnson a three-year deal, while Johnson remained insistent on five years.
"A lot of people are harping on Scott, saying 'Scott this' and 'Scott that.' But it's Scott who works for me. He's my agent, and I'm the one who makes the final decision. If there was nothing said or money put on the table, nothing can be done. So what can you do?" said Johnson, who heads to his fifth team in a little more than two years.
Signing Johnson to an extension "was totally uncertain," said Thrift. "We didn't want to be faced with bad choices."
When the Cardinals balked at taking Johnson earlier this month, Thrift focused on the White Sox.
Fordyce, 30, batted .272 with five home runs and 21 RBI in 39 games for the White Sox after missing the first 43 games this season because of a broken left foot suffered during a spring intrasquad game. Orioles fans best remember him as the hitter who lined a ball off Mike Mussina's right shoulder Aug. 22. Fordyce batted .307 in 1999, second among American League catchers to the league's Most Valuable Player, Ivan Rodriguez.
"We're going to miss those people, but we're getting good people in return," said manager Mike Hargrove. "I think Brook Fordyce is obviously a good major league catcher. The three pitchers we got are very good major league prospects. You look at the long term and these three pitchers, and you can see we have a chance to get better in years to come. It's one of those deals that's good for both clubs."
Figueroa and Lakman will report to Double-A Bowie; Felix reports to Class A Frederick.
Baines, 41, leaves the Orioles for the third time in five years, returning to the franchise that retired his number in 1989. Baines receives another shot at the World Series ring that has eluded him in his 21-year career but was somewhat wistful at again leaving his home state.
"I'm definitely going to a first-place team, but I was very happy being home," said Baines. "But this is a business. ... At 41, I'm still wanted, and there aren't many people in this game still wanted at 41."
The AL Central-leading White Sox expressed interest in Baines in early June, said Thrift, and were prepared to make a deal after tomorrow's deadline. White Sox general manager Ron Schueler advanced his timetable when Johnson became available and the possibility of an August waiver claim on Baines appeared more likely. Hitting .266 with 10 home runs and 30 RBI, Baines receives a shot at the postseason but will see his playing time shrink behind designated hitter Frank Thomas.
"I guess I'm pretty much looking at a bench role," he said. "But if I'm going somewhere, it's a great place to be."
Baines originally was in the lineup for the second game of yesterday's day-night doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians but was scratched after a meeting between Hargrove and Thrift. Later, thrift roamed the halls at Camden Yards suggesting he was far from done.
The deal with the Cardinals hinged on the Orioles assuming a significant portion of the remaining two years on Timlin's contract. Timlin came to symbolize the inadequacies of a bullpen that blew 20 saves in the first half of the '99 season and 19 saves before this year's All-Star break. He briefly lost his role both years, eventually righting himself in last season's second half and was seemingly headed in the same direction in recent weeks.
While with the Toronto Blue Jays, Timlin secured the final out of the 1992 World Series against the Atlanta Braves.
"I wanted to get back to the World Series, but I didn't want to get back to the Series for me, because I've been there. I did want to get back for all my teammates who haven't been there. Unfortunately, it didn't happen," he said.
The contract Timlin signed as a free agent in November 1998 became the first of many breakpoints between Angelos and former general manager Frank Wren. Angelos insisted he never authorized the contract's fourth year. How much of the contract the Orioles would assume became the final hurdle to a deal. The Indians and Atlanta Braves also had expressed interest. The Indians bolstered their bullpen in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night, leaving the Cardinals to push for yesterday's deal at a marked-down price.
"They treated me well here. They offered the contract. I signed it. If they didn't want to offer me that, they didn't have to," Timlin said.
Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty had pursued Timlin as a set-up man before he signed with the Orioles. Yesterday, he got him for the right role at the right rate.
"We think we acquired him to pitch the seventh and eighth innings. We tried to sign him as a free agent, but the dollars weren't comfortable. The dollars are comfortable now," Jocketty said.
The Orioles will assume roughly half the remainder of Timlin's contract - about $2 million per season, according to an industry source -while setting up Cardinals closer Dave Veres. His departure leaves manager Mike Hargrove to construct a closer-by-committee during the season's final two months.
The acquisition of Richard sounds a death knell for Calvin Pickering's standing as the organization's first baseman of the future. Pickering has disappointed the last two seasons and is languishing on the disabled list with torn left quadriceps. Pickering will not play again this season. Richard was the Cardinals' top left-handed-hitting prospect and does not carry the defensive baggage that has afflicted Pickering throughout his career.
"We got something we didn't have - a first baseman for the future," said Thrift.
Richard, 26, has also played outfield for the Cardinals and earlier this season homered in his first major-league at-bat against the Minnesota Twins. He will join the Orioles today. Last year he led Double-A Arkansas in home runs (29) and RBI (94). He was recalled by the Cardinals July 17.
"We really hated to give him up," Jocketty said. "They were looking to get younger. He's going right to the big leagues. We've improved our bullpen without really affecting our big-league club. That was our goal."