Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in two days, but the Orioles kept trying to bolster their starting rotation last night, signing former 20-game winner Rick Helling to a minor-league deal with major-league incentives.
Helling's contract would pay him $1 million if he makes the Opening Day roster, with up to $1 million more in incentives. With their 40-man roster already full, the Orioles were able to get Helling, 32, without bumping someone else off the roster and risking losing that player through waivers.
"This offseason tested Rick, as it did a lot of established players," said Helling's agent, Jeff Moorad. "In the end, we certainly hoped he would be paid at a more significant level. But Rick Helling would be the last person to complain about a seven-figure salary, and he looks forward to contributing for the Orioles."
The Orioles have a logjam of pitchers vying for spots in the starting rotation, but it's still full of question marks. They will enter camp fairly certain about what they can expect from Rodrigo Lopez, Sidney Ponson and Omar Daal - three pitchers who combined to pitch 534 innings last season.
But Jason Johnson is coming off a 5-14 season, Scott Erickson was found to have a partially torn labrum in his pitching shoulder this offseason, and Pat Hentgen went 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA last season in his return from reconstructive shoulder surgery.
"[Helling] gives us more flexibility," said Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. "He's made 30 or more starts the past five years. He's an innings eater, a guy who's won 20 games in the big leagues, and he's a guy that wants to come here."
Moorad began negotiating with the Orioles on Helling and reserve infielder John Valentin while he was working on a deal to potentially bring Ivan Rodriguez to Baltimore. Rodriguez wound up going to the Florida Marlins, but Helling and Valentin both signed minor-league deals with the Orioles.
In 1998, Helling went 20-7 for the Texas Rangers. Since then his win totals have been 13, 16, 12 and 10, and he has given up an average of 34.8 home runs over the past four seasons. He's a fly-ball pitcher who will be challenged working at hitter-friendly Camden Yards.
Helling saw his value sink significantly in a frustrating free-agent market, but he's not the only one who has fallen through the cracks. Kenny Rogers and Chuck Finley, a pair of left-handed veterans who combined to win 24 games last season, are both still on the market. So are Kenny Lofton and Rickey Henderson, but the only other free agent the Orioles are pursuing is B.J. Surhoff.
The Orioles have been trying to work out a minor-league deal with Surhoff similar to the one Helling just signed. Jim Beattie, the club's executive vice president, said those talks are still alive, but the negotiations have moved at a snail's pace.
Surhoff, 38, hit .293 for the Atlanta Braves before tearing a ligament in his right knee last season. He underwent surgery and appears to be fully recovered. He was a major part of the Orioles' clubs that reached the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997.
The term minor-league deal is a bit misleading because there is almost no chance Helling will wind up pitching at Triple-A Ottawa or another level of the Orioles' minor-league system. If he doesn't make the big-league roster, the Orioles will likely release him, allowing him to find a job with another major-league team.
"It gives us a chance to bring another person into camp with no risk," Beattie said.