- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

BALTIMORE Though they still lack a proven leadoff or cleanup hitter, the Baltimore Orioles head into next week's winter meetings looking to address a more pressing need: a veteran closer.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said yesterday he would like to sign an experienced reliever who could fill the closer's role while several younger pitchers develop. He has spoken specifically with Oakland right-hander Jason Isringhausen and could make an offer to the 29-year-old within the next few days.

"The primary thing we're focused on right now is the closer," said Thrift, who has momentarily put off attempts to sign a cleanup hitter. "No matter how many hitters you have, you don't have a chance to win without a closer, in my opinion. I would prefer to have a closer over a fourth-place hitter, if I had a choice on one or the other."

At the top of Thrift's wish list is Isringhausen, who recorded 67 saves over the last two years for the playoff-bound Athletics and is regarded the best closer currently available on the free agent market. Once a prize starting pitcher in the New York Mets' farm system, Isringhausen suffered through several arm injuries before resurrecting his career in Oakland, where he is coming off his best season (34 saves, 2.65 ERA).

The Orioles will have to pay a price to get him, though Isringhausen reportedly wants a four-year contract worth as much as $28 million. He has also said publicly he wishes to pitch for a contending team, though Thrift said he got the impression Isringhausen is interested in Baltimore during a 30-minute phone conversation earlier this week. Pitching coach Mark Wiley also spoke with the right-hander Wednesday.

"I had been reading where Jason said he only wanted to be on a surefire pennant winner, and we are not going to be that in 2002," Thrift said. "So I thought we were out of the question. But he said he wanted to talk to me. I explained to him where we were, where we want to get to and how important it is to get a closer. I found out what he wanted to learn."

Along with the Orioles and A's, the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals are believed to be interested in Isringhausen, with the Rangers considered front-runners. Dan Horwits, Isringhausen's agent, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Texas "has made a very strong impression on Jason."

If Baltimore is unable to sign a veteran closer, the team likely will enter spring training in the position of giving 26-year-old Willis Roberts the chance to earn the closer's role permanently. As a rookie last year, Roberts converted six saves in the final month and a half, though Thrift prefers not to put a young pitcher into the pressure-filled role.

Notes Thrift said injured infielders Mike Bordick (right shoulder) and David Segui (left knee) are progressing on schedule from surgery and are expected to be "100 percent" in time for spring training.

Outfielder Jay Gibbons, however, continues to be bothered by a broken bone in his right hand that ended the rookie's season in August. Gibbons aggravated the injury while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic and is now undergoing rehabilitation in Arizona with a physical therapist for an "indefinite period of time." Thrift said Gibbons still should be ready by March. …

The team has announced plans for this year's Orioles FanFest on Jan. 12 at Baltimore Convention Center. Among those scheduled to take part are Bordick, Jeff Conine, Josh Towers, John Parrish, Jason Johnson, newly signed outfielder Marty Cordova and manager Mike Hargrove.

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