Interest in I. Rodriguez raises issues of direction

Inside the Orioles

Keep building from within or commit to big names?

May 27, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

A call was made to Arlington, Texas. Internal discussions were held within the warehouse. And preparations were made for a pitch to Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos before Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks announced last week that the club would not be trading catcher Ivan Rodriguez before June 2, when the game's most valuable player gains the necessary service time to veto any deal.

Yes, the Orioles intended to be players in the I-Rod Sweepstakes if he ever became truly available.

Too bad they won't get the chance.

The possibility of acquiring Pudge Rodriguez would have served as nothing less than a Rorschach test for an organization which has so loudly committed to rebuilding itself from within.

Go for it and possibly discard the methodical organization-building that vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift has espoused since succeeding Frank Wren?

Or pull back because of the financial and personnel cost and possibly open themselves potentially to several more years of diminished attendance, growing pains, and secondary status to a Super Bowl champion across the street?

Or could both objectives be accomplished - acquiring Rodriguez, signing him to a six-year extension worth approximately $120 million and continuing a commitment to the minor-league system despite what some within the organization believe would be a need to surround the catcher with All-Star caliber free agents?

Club officials wouldn't address the matter directly for fear of violating the game's rules regarding tampering. However, no consensus among the Orioles' front office existed before Hicks' recent pledge that Rodriguez would be staying at The Ballpark in Arlington.

Burned by Albert Belle, are the Orioles prepared to bestow a mega-deal on any player, even a total player such as Rodiguez?

Can a minor-league system lampooned for years now withstand the loss of one or more of its prize pitchers, such as Beau Hale, Richard Stahl or Erik Bedard?

If they are able to meet the Rangers' terms for Rodriguez, would the Orioles be able to persuade the player to sign? In other words, could Thrift convince him that a team unable to win with huge payrolls the past three seasons could put together a competent supporting cast?

"If you were starting a team from scratch, would [Rodriguez] be the player you'd like to build it around? Probably. Does that mean you sign him to a six- or seven-year deal? I'm not sure," said an industry source whose team prepared to discuss a deal with the Rangers.

Thrift did not return a call concerning the issue.

The last time Rodriguez was available, during the Orioles' wire-to-wire division title run in 1997, Angelos said he would never negotiate a contract paying any player $10 million a season. (Rodriguez signed a five-year, $41 million extension with the Rangers on July 31.) Of course, Angelos lost his religion to sign Belle to a five-year, $65 million deal. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro also rejected a five-year, $50 million offer in order to play for less in Texas. Angelos offered Mike Mussina $13 million a season last winter, albeit $3 million deferred in each of six years.

Thrift spoke with Rangers general manager Doug Melvin after the story broke that the Rangers might be willing to trade Rodriguez as a way of escaping crushing financial obligations begun by the $10-year, $252 million signing of shortstop Alex Rodriguez last December. Melvin, however, has been whipsawed by maneuverings beyond his control.

The Orioles actually would have enjoyed a better negotiating position than the Yankees in chasing Rodriguez. The Rangers are desperate for starting pitching, and the Orioles decided to remove the untouchable label from Sidney Ponson weeks before the I-Rod issue arose.

One faction would lobby for Ponson's inclusion "in a heartbeat." The Orioles might include catcher Brook Fordyce and a high-end pitching prospect.

Others, however, would argue for less.

As a catcher, Rodriguez offers special health concerns. Now 30, will he become a 32-year-old designated hitter who so far has one 100-RBI season? ESPN.com recently published a persuasive list of All-Star catchers whose careers went into steep decline after catching more than 1,300 games before turning 32. (For example, Johnny Bench had caught 1,391 games at 29. He never again drove in more than 81 runs in a season.) Rodriguez entered this season having caught 1,220 games.

Orioles special assistant Ed Kenney was Boston Red Sox assistant general manager when they ripped off the Montreal Expos for Pedro Martinez in 1997. The Expos lacked leverage for economic reasons and were willing to deal Martinez for high-ceiling pitching prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr., neither of whom has yet had a 10-win season.

"At the time, we didn't feel we had to give up major-league players," Kenney said. "The market verified it, and we got the player. We gave up what we thought it would take to get him, not necessarily what he was worth."

Rodriguez's worth to the Orioles? Two high-ceiling pitchers, a starting catcher (and maybe more; a six-year, $120 million extension; a modification of the build-from-within campaign?

Sometimes the most delicious questions are the ones never answered.

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