MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- The Baltimore Orioles have flown south for the winter meetings, no doubt hoping they will accomplish enough over the next few days to move north in the standings.
General manager Roland Hemond and the Orioles front office contingent were to have arrived yesterday to begin trade talks with about a dozen teams, eager to shore up a questionable starting rotation in time to compete for the 1992 American League East title.
It will not be easy, since few clubs have anything resembling a pitching surplus and most have listed starting pitching as an off-season priority. The supply and demand are so out of balance that the free-agent market appears to be the only alternative for a team with such marginal depth.
Trading has become a lost art, anyway. The free-agent auction is just getting into full swing, which should keep the meetings in perpetual gridlock. But Hemond seems determined not to come back empty-handed, and he isn't sure that the club lacks the wherewithal to make a significant acquisition.
"You'd like to feel that you could," Hemond said. "You go in with that in mind, and we're hearing more about our players this winter than we've heard in previous years."
He has been known to pull off a deal or two, but seldom has the environment been so hostile to those teams looking to trade for quality pitching help. The vast majority of the 26 major-league clubs has listed pitching as an off-season priority. Bob Walk, 35 and injury-prone, has garnered substantial interest on the free-agent market. Any questions?
The Cincinnati Reds just traded for Tim Belcher and Greg Swindell, but in this case, the exception proves the rule. The Reds traded one of the best players in baseball -- Eric Davis -- to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Belcher, and they traded two starting pitchers -- Scott Scudder and Jack Armstrong -- to acquire Swindell a year shy of free-agent eligibility.
The Orioles only have two players with market value comparable to Eric Davis', and Cal Ripken and Glenn Davis aren't going anywhere. The club cannot trade any of its best young pitching prospects, because that would defeat the purpose of making a pitching deal. Which leaves only the possibility of packaging first baseman Randy Milligan with a couple of marginal players. Good luck.
Hemond apparently has been in contact with the Milwaukee Brewers, who might trade right-hander Chris Bosio for the right price. But the right price likely will be more than the Orioles can afford.
Milligan figures to end up somewhere else in the next few weeks, if not the next few days. The abortive left-field experiment of 1991 will not be repeated next year, so it seems unlikely the Orioles will be able to find him more than 400 at-bats. If Glenn Davis is healthy, he'll play 140 games at first base, leaving Milligan to back him up and DH against left-handed pitching.
Milligan might be more valuable to the club as the currency that will bring more pitching depth, but the same argument could have been made last spring. As it turned out, the Orioles were happy to have Milligan around when Davis injured his neck and missed 113 games.
This year, they probably will settle for keeping David Segui in reserve. Milligan is the only front-line player the club can afford to deal, and the Orioles cannot afford not to make a deal, unless they are ready to spend some real money in the free-agent market.
"I know we're going to make every effort to try to do something," said assistant general manager Doug Melvin, not specifically referring to Milligan. "I know we've talked to a lot of clubs to get things moving."
The Milligan rumor mill has been churning ever since Davis signed a two-year contract in early November. First, it was Milligan for Montreal Expos leadoff man Delino DeShields. Then it was Milligan for Expos pitcher Brian Barnes and infielder Bret Barberie. There have been other teams mentioned, but Montreal has been most prominent and, it seems, most interested in Milligan.
Barnes, 24, does not fit the profile the Orioles were working with when they began their pitching hunt in October, but he is an attractive prospect. He was 5-8 with a 4.22 ERA in his first full major-league season, but his hits-to-innings ratio (135 hits, 160 innings) was strong and he held opposing batters to a .233 combined average.
The club still hopes to acquire a veteran starter who can contribute 200 solid innings. Free agent Kirk McCaskill, 30, who has averaged 175 innings during the past seven seasons, and Joe Hesketh, 32, who was 12-4 for the Boston Red Sox in a starter/reliever role, both could fit the job description. It's just a question of price.
McCaskill continues to negotiate with the California Angels, but he is planning a trip to the East Coast next week to meet face-to-face with the Orioles and Boston Red Sox.
The Orioles' interest in the free-agent market does not stop with pitching. They were one of the clubs bidding on free-agent outfielder Dan Pasqua until he agreed to return to the Chicago White Sox for three years and $6.75 million.
It probably is no coincidence that Pasqua's run-production numbers the past two years were almost identical to those of Milligan. Presumably, the Orioles were attempting to replace in advance the power and run-production they expect to lose when, and if, they trade Milligan.
Club officials also have expressed interest in acquiring a leadoff hitter, but outfielder Luis Mercedes has been on an offensive tear in the winter league, raising hope that the Orioles will solve their leadoff problem from within the organization.