ROSEMONT, Ill. — It was only appropriate that among the final transactions of major league baseball's annual winter meetings Thursday was the hometown Chicago Cubs' free-agent signing of outfielder George Bell.
And it was just as appropriate that prospecting done during the winter meetings should yield gold strikes soon after their close, with the Baltimore Orioles signing long-time Boston Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans and the Pittsburgh Pirates retaining left-handed pitcher Zane Smith.
For the Cubs, Bell was a find. "We've been looking to add an offensive player of his caliber to our club for a couple of years," said Jim Frey, Cub executive vice president for baseball operations. "Players like George Bell just aren't available very often."
Bell signed a three-year contract worth $9.8 million with a one-year option. If the Cubs pickup the option in 1994, he will receive $2.8 million, making the package worth a guaranteed $12.6 million.
He received a $1.85-million signing bonus and has incentives that could dramatically increase the value of his contract. Bell will be paid $200,000 if he is selected the National League MVP and $50,000 for making the All-Star team.
These will be meetings remembered not for the players, or the trades, but for free agency. There were 18 free-agent signings, two contract extensions and $133 million obligated by owners.
"When you're in the free-agent market and the money's pretty good, you have to take it," said Bell, who had spent his entire 8 1/2-year major league career with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Cubs become the first team since the 1984 Angels to have three players in their batting order who have won most-valuable-player awards. Bell was selected MVP of the American League in 1987, second baseman Ryne Sandberg won in 1984 and right fielder Andre Dawson won in 1987.
The 1984 Angel order included former MVPs Fred Lynn, Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew.
Bell, a three-time All-Star, has averaged 28 homers and 101 runs batted in the last seven seasons with the Blue Jays. The only player since 1984 who has driven in more runs than Bell is Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees.
Bell batted .265, with 21 home runs and 86 RBIs during the 1990 season.
Yet, because of Bell's tirades and celebrated arguments with management, the Blue Jays refused to get into the free-agent bidding, offering a one-year contract at $2 million. TSix teams made offers to Bell during negotiations, but in the final week, it was clear that the Cubs were the only serious bidders.
Bell eliminated many of the teams himself, agent Alan Hendricks said, simply because of his refusal to be a full-time designated hitter.
Evans, 39, spent much of the latter part of his career as a designated hitter by necessity because of lower back problems. His back took him out of the middle of the Red Sox season, but he recovered enough so that in his final 24 games, between Aug. 25 and Oct. 3, he was 26 for 85, a .306 average that helped Boston to the American League East championship.
He reportedly will receive $1 million for a year with the Orioles.
"My main objective is to play in the outfield next year," he said. "I missed that in '90 and I want to be able to contribute to the Orioles. In the next season I feel like I've got to be an all-around player and that means playing in the outfield."
With 379 home runs, he is tied with Dodger Eddie Murray for the major league high among active players.
The Pirates had already lost R.J. Reynolds to Japan and Sid Bream to Atlanta, and have seven unsigned free agents of their own. That has made fans restless and management answered with a four-year, $10.6-million contract for Smith.
He was 6-2 during the Pirates' stretch run to the National League East championship after coming to Pittsburgh in a trade from Montreal. Overall, Smith was 12-9 with a 2.55 earned-run average in 1990 and is 51-68 lifetime.
Smith made $660,000 last season and the Pirates had originally offered him $6 million for three years. The market changed, though, with the Giants' signing of Bud Black for four years for $10 million, and Smith looked elsewhere--until the winter meetings gold rush.