AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. - The Orioles plan to leave the isolated Ritz-Carlton resort this afternoon with their bags no more full than when they arrived five days ago. They bring back the same glaring needs as when they arrived. Expensive meals, an industry-wide lack of urgency and the presence of agent Scott Boras ruled the week.
"Everybody's waiting," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, further handicapped in trade discussions by a fourth-place team's lack of leverage and a reluctance to part with any of the minor-league system's young pitchers. "They want to wait and see what happens with the free agents first."
Thrift met last night with Boras concerning at least two of his clients, free-agent pitcher Darren Dreifort and free-agent first baseman David Segui.
Dreifort is considered the market's third-most attractive arm behind Mike Mussina and Mike Hampton, both of whom are apparently too costly for the rebuilding Orioles. Segui is one of only several potent free-agent hitters who may settle for less than a four-year contract.
One certainty revealed itself yesterday: the Orioles will not acquire left-handed pitcher Ron Villone because the Cincinnati Reds instead chose to deal him to the Colorado Rockies for two players to be named or for cash. The deal was only the second of the meetings, which have been known more for their lack of decisiveness than anything else.
The Orioles are in search of two starting pitchers, a relief pitcher, a shortstop and a potent bat to place either immediately in front of or behind Albert Belle.
The ambitious plan comes as the Orioles are apparently willing to lower last year's season-opening $81.3 million payroll by cutting off their pursuit of Mussina and abstaining from the chase for shortstop Alex Rodriguez.
Majority owner Peter Angelos' decision not to retain Mussina for six years or to award any pitcher $15 million per season means the Orioles will probably satisfy themselves with a combination of second-tier free agents, a trade for an arbitration-eligible arm or an open audition for prospects such as John Parrish, Luis Rivera and Jay Spurgeon. Thrift has insisted veteran reliever Chuck McElroy is projected as a starter for next year after two strong starts at the end of the season.
Dreifort, a 28-year-old right-hander who was 12-9 with a 4.16 ERA with Los Angeles, is perhaps a thin market's most intriguing pitcher. His career has been complicated by injuries and inconsistency, but he is also blessed with a potentially dominant arm.
The Dodgers are expected to bid aggressively to keep him, leading some agents to predict he will eventually will secure a six-year deal worth $10 million per season.
Some within the Orioles organization believe a tattered rotation may be addressed by trying to augment a pitcher of Dreifort's potential with another of Tim Wakefield's durability. Valued for his ability to eat innings if not for a sterling ERA, the 34-year-old knuckleballer was a member of the successful Pittsburgh Pirates teams of the early 1990s that Thrift helped construct. The pitching-thin Boston Red Sox chose not to pick up Wakefield's option after last season, making him a free agent.
Thrift minimized the need to acquire a backup for Cal Ripken at third base, though he had expressed such a desire to at least two clubs earlier this week.
Before Ripken's signing, the Orioles inquired about San Diego Padres third baseman Phil Nevin. Those talks have grown cold, however, as the club ponders its tactics.
Because Melvin Mora is not projected as next season's everyday shortstop, Thrift is contemplating returning free-agent shortstop Mike Bordick or pursuing Alex Gonzalez, who appeared last year with the Toronto Blue Jays. All decisions, Thrift says, are weighed against a desire to promote Ed Rogers as the starting shortstop by 2003.
"A lot depends on the player's ability to possibly play another position down the road," Thrift said.
Gonzalez can play third base or second base. Bordick has played shortstop his entire career.
Segui, 34, could be the hitter the Orioles so desperately need. An adept first baseman, he has wanted to return to Baltimore since being traded in 1993. He hit .334 this season with Texas and Cleveland, with 19 home runs and 103 RBIs.
Left-hander Denny Neagle remains an option but concerns over his durability, his poor finish to last season and his ability to thrive within Camden Yards leave the Orioles unlikely to offer anything close to the $8 million per season he seeks.
Meetings with the Kansas City Royals concerning outfielder Johnny Damon were described as only preliminary. Damon is eligible for free agency after next season and the small-market Royals are interested in trading him before spring training.
The situation is complicated by Boras, Damon's agent, insisting his client is not interested in signing a contract extension but will instead test the market after the 2001 season. The Royals are said to be seeking a three-player package for Damon.
"I don't know how much you can get for one year. It depends on where you go, I guess," Thrift said.