Orioles majority partner Peter Angelos gained a reputation in the early years of his ownership for spending first and asking questions later, but in the midst of a sometimes painful rebuilding period, he is showing remarkable patience.
The easy thing to do now might be to mollify the fans by spending heavily in the free-agent market. The Orioles have plenty of room on the payroll in the wake of Albert Belle's injury-induced departure last spring and Cal Ripken's retirement, but Angelos said recently that the club may take a slightly longer view in its further attempts to upgrade the franchise.
"I don't think this free-agent group is exceptional," Angelos said. "There are a few players who interest us, but there may be situations where the ability is there but the opportunity might not be there. These commitments are usually long-term, and I don't want us to cancel out future opportunities for the sake of adding one or more players this year."
Angelos is not in the habit of conceding anything, but he acknowledges the Orioles are more than a Moises Alou away from being in a strong position to win the American League East. The team may have money to spend, but it's possible that the same money might be better spent a year from now, when the Orioles' crop of young pitching prospects has another year of experience.
"I don't think you go for it next year," he said. "It's a building process."
The Orioles held their postseason organizational meeting in Florida last week, but the club's plans for the coming off-season apparently have not crystallized.
The conventional wisdom both inside and outside the organization holds that the Orioles are at least a year away from developing their young pitchers enough to have a realistic chance to compete for a division title or a wild-card playoff berth. The Minnesota Twins proved this year that anything can happen, but the Orioles - in the wake of four consecutive losing seasons - do not want to get caught in the cycle of short-term solutions.
"The 2003 season should be a lot of fun if things fall in place," Angelos said, "but I don't think [success in] 2002 is necessarily out of the question. I wouldn't be surprised if some significant progress can be achieved."
The 2001 season was not laden with great expectations, but it still was a big disappointment. Angelos had hoped that the addition of free agents David Segui and Pat Hentgen would allow the team to make a respectable showing while the younger players got a taste of the big leagues.
It looked like that might happen early on, even with the loss of veteran starter Scott Erickson to elbow surgery the previous season and the abrupt departure of Belle. The club held its own in the first half, hanging close to .500 until Hentgen went down for the season and injuries limited the playing time of Segui, veteran Mike Bordick and several other players.
"The injuries took the excitement out of last year," Angelos said. "The loss of Hentgen, for example. This is a guy who hadn't been hurt in a decade. Then the loss of Segui, [Jay] Gibbons, [Chris] Richard. The loss of Bordick was a severe blow. We just had a really bad run, just one injury after another."
Still, Angelos - once very optimistic about the 2001 club - apparently isn't allowing himself to believe the Orioles would have been a contender if they weren't submarined by the midseason rash of injuries. The team lacked an anchor at the heart of the batting order, and that was a void that director of baseball operations Syd Thrift was unable to fill.
"If we had had that one big hitter and those injuries had not occurred, we would have had a good year," Angelos said. "We still don't have that big hitter. That's obvious."
The Orioles could have the opportunity to make a play for that big hitter this winter. Oakland Athletics slugger Jason Giambi would be the perfect guy to build around in the batting order. But Giambi figures to command a huge contract and seems unlikely to volunteer to be the cornerstone for the Orioles' rebuilding program.
American League RBI leader Bret Boone may be available, but it appears highly unlikely the Orioles would spend heavily on the Seattle second baseman with young Jerry Hairston newly established at the position.
Alou and New York Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez are of interest to the Orioles, but both are in their mid-30s, so the length of contract may become a sticking point for a team that remains wary of making long-term commitments to thirtysomething veterans.
"If you want to sign a player 35 years of age, usually you're looking at four years," Angelos said. "The length of contract becomes the key issue. If a player like that wants three to five years, we would have to pass, because we aren't in a position where we need one player to go for it."
Though it might be tempting to try to make an immediate splash to fill the personality gap left by the retirement of Ripken, it's clear the franchise has learned from some of its earlier free-agent misadventures.
Angelos still is philosophically opposed to paying even a young superstar $20 million a year, but the team could be a major player in the free-agent market in the winter after next season if the franchise shows the potential for significant upward mobility in 2002.