Contract negotiations between the Baltimore Orioles and catcher Mickey Tettleton have come to a virtual standstill because of the Orioles' request that Tettleton defer his free agent status until after the 1991 season, his agent said yesterday.

Tony Attanasio said from his San Diego office he's "not optimistic at all" about reaching agreement about a new Baltimore deal for Tettleton by Nov. 4, the end of the 15-day period in which free agents can negotiate with their current teams only. Tettleton filed Monday for free agency.

Players and their agents, however, are permitted informal talks with other clubs to determine their market value, and Attanasio said he had spoken to representatives of five teams other than the Orioles. Three of them showed "positive interest" in Tettleton, he said. He declined to specify the clubs.

Tettleton long has maintained he would prefer to stay in Baltimore. "We're not saying no to the Orioles at all," he said from his Scottsdale, Ariz., home yesterday. "We just want to see what's out there."

But Attanasio contends that Tettleton's best contract offer might come from elsewhere. "The Orioles' position conceptually is to have Mickey come back to Baltimore and defer his free agency until after next season," the agent said. "That, I believe, is not in Mickey's best interests."

The Orioles held to their usual policy of being tight-lipped about such matters. General Manager Roland Hemond would not comment. President Larry Lucchino was out of town and unavailable.

If Tettleton -- who made $750,000 last season -- should defer his free agency, his 1991 salary may be determined by a February arbitration hearing. By Dec. 7, the Orioles would have to offer a one-year arrangement through arbitration, and Tettleton -- to retain his free agency following the '91 season -- would have to accept by Dec. 19. He also could reject arbitration and deal with other teams instead.

But he already is free to negotiate with any club beginning Nov. 5. Attanasio compares Tettleton's situation to that of Philadelphia's Darren Daulton, who reportedly rejected a three-year, $6.6 million Phillies offer during the season's final week.

"Mickey and {Daulton} are the only starting catchers available in the free agent pool, so I think you should be talking about comparable worth there," Attanasio said. Tettleton hit .223 with 15 home runs, 51 RBI and 160 strikeouts in 444 at-bats this year. Daulton batted .268 with 12 homers and 57 RBI.

The Orioles apparently offered Tettleton a two-year, $3 million pact near midseason but backed away from negotiations when Tettleton asked for a three-year deal. Indications are that the Orioles likely will be willing to sign Tettleton for around $1.5 million per season but will let him go if the numbers near $2 million.

Despite the impasse, Attanasio said talks with the Orioles have been amicable.

"It never will be {bitter} with them," he said. "If everyone in baseball were as easy to deal with as Roland Hemond and Larry Lucchino, you wouldn't see very many contract hassles. We're not at odds. . . . We just have a difference of opinion."

Elsewhere, Milwaukee left-hander Ted Higuera and nine other players filed for free agency, raising the total to 31. The other new filers are Jim Presley, Tom Brunansky, Dan Petry, Steve Farr, Juan Samuel, John Moses, R.J. Reynolds, Terry Pendleton and John Tudor.

The New York Mets exercised a 1991 contract option on pitcher Alejando Pena for $1 million rather than exercising a $300,000 buyout clause. Pitchers Dave Smith of Houston and Jim Gott of Los Angeles were offered salary arbitration; had they not been, they would have had the right to file for free agency.

Los Angeles told an old Oriole, catcher Rick Dempsey, it would not offer him arbitration; he's free.