Bringing back Palmeiro may be best deal for O's

July 03, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Four years, $30 million. Offer it to Rafael Palmeiro right now. And if he doesn't take it, trade him.

Four years, $30 million, with a $2 million buyout if the Orioles fail to exercise an option for a fifth year.

Palmeiro, 33, would become the highest-paid player in Orioles history. And if that isn't good enough, the decision to trade him would be easy.

The next four weeks should decide Palmeiro's future. His agents have begun preliminary talks with the Orioles. A July 31 trade deadline is looming.

Palmeiro repeated yesterday that he wants to finish his career with the Orioles, but hedged on whether he would be willing to accept less than a five-year deal.

"I'd like to get it," he said before hitting his 26th home run yesterday in the Orioles' 5-3 victory over the Florida Marlins.

"When we start [serious talks], if we do start, then I can answer that better. At this time, I have no idea what it's going to take, no idea how many years."

What he does know is that within the past nine months, the Orioles have signed both Scott Erickson and Brady Anderson to guaranteed five-year deals.

If you're Palmeiro, you rightly expect the same.

You're second to Ken Griffey in total bases this decade. You've hit the most home runs in a five-year stretch of any player in club history. You're the most valuable player on the team.

The Orioles can't escape those truths, though they probably hope they can raise the specter of Palmeiro's last free-agent experience, prey on his insecurities and get away with a three-year deal.

Palmeiro still remembers the Texas snub that led him to Baltimore. He doesn't want to start over in a new city. But that doesn't mean he's going to cave.

Once again, the Orioles are backed into a corner with a potential free agent, in large part because their paltry farm system deprives them of leverage.

They don't want to give another five-year deal to another older player. But if they don't think they can sign Palmeiro, they might as well trade him.

The problem with that is the market for first basemen is limited, and that the Orioles have no obvious replacement for a player who is on a 50-homer, 137-RBI pace.

Mo Vaughn? The Boston slugger likely would command $10 million a year as a free agent, and the Orioles would face stiff competition to sign him.

Calvin Pickering or Ryan Minor? The Double-A prospects won't be ready by next season, and might never develop into impact players, anyway.

Owner Peter Angelos says he doesn't want a lengthy rebuilding process. But if the Orioles lose Roberto Alomar and Palmeiro, they'll need to replace the entire right side of their infield.

Alomar has been less vocal than Palmeiro about wanting to stay in Baltimore. Whether the Orioles trade him or lose him to free agency, he's not coming back.

Palmeiro, the American League Player of the Month for June, is raising both his trade value and free-agent value, with home runs in four straight games and 11 in his past 23.

As hot as he is, some team should want him.

Maybe Boston, if Vaughn got hurt.

Maybe Milwaukee, if the oft-injured John Jaha breaks down.

Maybe Anaheim, if Tim Salmon can't continue playing with a partially torn ligament in his left foot, creating an opening at first base with Cecil Fielder moving back to DH.

Yes, it probably would take an injury, with virtually every contender set at first base and DH. The worst-case scenario is that the Orioles will neither sign nor trade Palmeiro, lose him to free agency and receive only draft picks in return.

Last winter, Palmeiro said he wouldn't "do a Brady" and accept less money to stay in Baltimore. He has since softened his stance to the point where he might consider doing just that.

"The one thing I know, even though things haven't gone well this year, I still want to play here, end my career here," Palmeiro said. "You have to consider a lot of things. Some guys that are young, not married, don't have a family, may go to the highest bidder."

Palmeiro is married with two sons, Patrick, 8, and Preston, 3.

"In my case, I have a family. There are a couple of places I'd like to play. This is one of them. Right now, this is my only choice. When November comes around, there may be other choices. It doesn't mean I'll take those choices over this one."

Of course, if the Orioles signed Palmeiro, they almost certainly would need to end their unwritten policy of paying Cal Ripken more than any position player.

Ripken's average annual salary is $7.55 million. A four-year, $30 million deal with a $2 million buyout would give Palmeiro an average annual value of $8 million.

That's an exorbitant sum, but the Orioles have little choice but to pay. If Angelos wants to compete, and his farm system is nearly barren, then his only option is to keep selected veterans, whatever the price.

Anderson's horrid first half has underscored the risk of such deals. Indeed, even Palmeiro acknowledges that it might be in the organization's best long-term interests to trade him.

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