The Baltimore Orioles tried to get a running start on the off-season, but their attempt to make a pre-emptive trade has been undermined by uncertainty over the free-agent market and the pending collusion damage settlement.
Club officials have worked furiously the past month in an attempt acquire a proven run-producer, but the Orioles' enthusiasm has not been enough to overcome the industrywide wait-and-see attitude that has stifled trading activity.
"We tried to accelerate the process," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said. "We went to the playoffs and World Series to talk to people. We didn't want to wait for the winter meetings, but it now looks like we're back to a more conventional timetable."
Lucchino won't say so, but there is nothing to indicate that this logjam will be broken in the near future. Outfielder Darryl Strawberry signed a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers Thursday, and catcher Darren Daulton re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies last week, but this year's free-agent auction is just getting under way. It could be another four or five weeks before most teams involved in trying to sign or re-sign free agents will have a clear picture of their strengths and weaknesses.
"There has been that atmosphere to some extent," general manager Roland Hemond said, "but you still try to talk to clubs. You just try to follow the usual procedure, have as many discussions as you can, but it takes the other party to be in the same mood to get something done."
The situation is complicated further by the possibility of a new-look free-agent period in January and February, which would be part of the proposed $280 million collusion damage settlement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Players Association.
Sixteen more players would be eligible for free agency, including several attractive starting pitchers, but their availability could keep trade activity depressed until spring training.
When Hemond and Lucchino went to the playoffs and World Series, it was to try to lay groundwork for a productive week at December's winter meetings. Hemond spent the past week at the general managers' meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., but the winter meetings, the major-league portion of which will be held in Chicago Dec. 1-5, still have no trade deadline to encourage activity.
The meetings have been the setting for moderate trading the past few years, but they have diminished in importance since the advent of free agency.
Now the free-agent picture has been blurred by the likelihood that each team will be liable for a $10.8 million share of the collusion damage settlement. That figures to have a chilling effect on free-agent bidding.
"I don't think so," said agent Tony Attanasio, who represents free-agent catcher Mickey Tettleton. "Everybody knew about this settlement before the Dodgers signed Strawberry and the Phillies signed Daulton."
If nothing else, the specter of a giant collusion payoff will provide a convenient excuse for the teams that already were reluctant to get involved in the free-agent market, perhaps the Orioles included. But the lack of trading activity could have a balancing effect, since it might leave rebuilding clubs with little alternative but to sign free agents.
The Orioles need a run-producer, and there are a number of attractive free-agent possibilities. The club reportedly has expressed interest in outfielders Tom Brunansky and Candy Maldonado, but both are looking for substantial three-year contracts.
There also has been talk of acquiring a veteran starting pitcher -- talk that began with manager Frank Robinson -- but the club does not consider pitching to be nearly as much of a priority as a power-hitting outfielder.
If the Orioles have expressed preliminary interest in the likes of Teddy Higuera and former Oriole Mike Boddicker, it seems unlikely they would spend what is necessary to sign a front-line pitcher unless it was in conjunction with a deal in which they gave up pitching depth to acquire offensive help.