As if Washington needed another think tank, Orioles club officials descended on the nation's capital yesterday. To paraphrase a certain president, they have more will than wallet. Unfortunately, wallet is what they need.
The first three free-agent signings this fall were worth a total of $37 million. Catcher Darren Daulton, outfielder Darryl Strawberry and pitcher Bud Black will combine for 11 years of hard time to earn that money.
You could do a lot with $37 million in this economy, probably bankroll an insurance company or two. But baseball owners continue to spend money as if they never heard of S&Ls or the Persian Gulf.
Which isn't good news for the Orioles.
Club executives remained upbeat after convening in president Larry Lucchino's Washington law office yesterday, but they face a decidedly uphill battle in their quest to improve the team.
Lucchino said a wide range of issues was discussed, and the weekly meeting even featured a surprise guest -- manager Frank Robinson, who lives in Los Angeles but had been attending to business on the East Coast.
General manager Roland Hemond and farm director Doug Melvin reported on the status of trade talks following the general managers' meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. And inevitably, the conversation turned to free agents as well.
More than anything, the Orioles want to make a trade. But a record 95 free agents entered the market this fall, and 16 more of the "new-look" variety are expected in January as part of the upcoming collusion settlement.
In recent years, free agency has been the tail that wagged the dog as far as trades were concerned. Even when teams make deals today, they usually are motivated in some way by free agency; witness the Orioles with Phil Bradley.
So, what happened in Arizona?
"Roland and Doug had several very specific [trade] conversations, but baseball moves glacially, slowly," Lucchino said. "Sometimes, you've just got to keep moving and pushing and meeting in hopes you'll trigger a spark."
But these days, such sparks are few and far between. Free agency complicates the issue, and this year there's the added specter of collusion damages, which reportedly will reach $10.8 million for each team.
Given that, and the basic laws of supply-and-demand, the free-agent glut this winter should result in more realistic contracts, enabling the Orioles to compete against clubs with greater resources. But such has not been the case thus far.
Neither Daulton nor Black is considered a superior player, but each is now a $2 million man. Black signed a four-year, $10 million contract with San Francisco on Friday. His age: 33. His career record: 83-82.
The Orioles had interest in Black, but not at $2.5 million a year. They have interest in several other veteran starters as well, but what's Teddy Higuera worth now? Danny Jackson? Mike Boddicker?
Hemond, the eternal optimist, insisted, "You don't give up on anything just because something else happens." But Lucchino said, "You do get discouraged when you see players signing for numbers far beyond their achievements."
The Orioles claim they would only sign a quality free agent, but the way the market is developing, they might even be priced out on players like Houston outfielder/first baseman Franklin Stubbs and Seattle lefthander Matt Young.
"We're open-minded to everything at this point," Melvin said. "But we're somewhat cautious too. We're still looking long-range. We have to feel we're going to help the club for a few years."
Meanwhile, other issues loom:
* Mickey Tettleton: The Orioles are waiting while their free-agent catcher tests the market. "If my phone still ain't ringing, I assume it still ain't him, to quote an old country song," Lucchino said.
Tettleton's agent, Tony Attanasio, was unavailable for comment yesterday. He said last week that Tettleton has drawn interest from nine teams. The next step is to field offers, perhaps this week.
* The 40-man roster: The deadline for the Orioles to add players from their minor-league clubs is a week from today. The roster currently is at 37, giving team officials room to maneuver.
The most likely additions are lefthander Mike Linskey, who was a combined 14-10 at two levels last season, and second baseman Luis Mercedes, who led the Double A Eastern League with a .334 batting average.
Roster players are exempt from the upcoming major-league draft.
* A new scouting director: Lucchino and Hemond discussed this topic yesterday. The club is expected to stay within the organization in replacing John Barr, who left to become assistant to the general manager in San Diego.
The leading in-house candidates are believed to be Gordon Goldsberry, now special assistant to Hemond, West Coast scouting supervisor John Cox and East Coast scouting supervisor Gary Nickels.