The Baltimore Orioles yesterday offered salary arbitration to free agent catcher Mickey Tettleton. He has until Dec. 19 to accept or reject.

The move, which comes on the heels of the Orioles' signing of free agent outfielder Dwight Evans, demonstrates the club's willingness to retain Tettleton at a salary that may not be of their choosing. His base salary last season was $750,000.

Evans, 39, had been released by the Red Sox. His signing could affect the Orioles' decision on their next major personnel deadline, Dec. 15, when they must decide whether to exercise the option year on first baseman-designated hitter Ron Kittle.

If Tettleton accepts the arbitration offer, he would be able to negotiate with only the Orioles, but would retain the right to become a free agent again after the 1991 season. Although an arbitration hearing would be set for sometime in February, the two sides would be free to reach an agreement at any time until the hearing.

If Tettleton rejects arbitration, he would continue to be free to negotiate with any team, including the Orioles, until Jan. 8. If he does not re-sign with the Orioles by then, he would continue to be free to negotiate with any club, but he would not be allowed to re-sign with the Orioles until May 1.

"It was a combination of things," General Manager Roland Hemond said of the decision. He added "you always hope" arbitration can be avoided.

Agent Tony Attanasio said his client will not make a decision "until the last possible moment."

Tettleton, 30, a switch hitter, batted .223 last season with 15 home runs and 51 RBI. He was second in the American League in walks (106) and strikeouts (160). His strikeout total set a single-season record for switch hitters.