Orioles browse market options

Team needs closer, big bat, Thrift says, but price up in air

November 20, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

A rebuilding team, the Orioles today enter baseball's free-agent marketplace offering mixed signals about which aisle they will choose: the one offering bright-light names such as Bonds and Gonzalez or the blue-light selection underscoring the need for patience.

This much is certain: The Orioles' two most pressing needs, according to vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, are a closer and a hitter.

Having endured a season in which rookie closer Ryan Kohlmeier fumbled the role, was twice optioned and ultimately lost to the Chicago White Sox on a waiver claim, the Orioles seek someone to stem a perennial bullpen shuffle. Transplanted middle reliever Buddy Groom led the staff with 11 saves because rookie Willis Roberts was deemed not ready.

"When you have leads, you can't lose them in the eighth and ninth inning," Thrift said.

Atlanta relievers Steve Karsay and John Smoltz more closely fit the need. Karsay served mostly a setup role with the Cleveland Indians and Braves last season and is being eyed by the New York Yankees as a possibility to fill the role vacated by free agent Jeff Nelson after the 2000 season.

Smoltz, converted to closer after returning from ligament replacement surgery last season, represents an intriguing possibility, though it is believed he would prefer returning to Turner Field. Smoltz, 34, earned $8 million last season, when he converted 10 of 11 save chances and constructed a 1.59 ERA in relief.

Smoltz hasn't discarded the notion of starting. However, barring another team willing to offer him such a role, he's likely to return to the Braves if slotted as a reliever.

The Orioles also have had longstanding interest in right-handed starter Jason Schmidt, who finished last season with the San Francisco Giants. Indians swing man Dave Burba also has been discussed.

Exposed by the availability of first baseman David Segui for only 82 games, the Orioles need a power presence to address an offense that ranked 13th in the American League last season.

Majority owner Peter Angelos has suggested the Orioles will take a more restrained approach this off-season in anticipation of a deeper free-agent class after the 2002 season. Such restraint could include offers to outfielders Moises Alou of Houston, Johnny Damon of Oakland or Marty Cordova of Cleveland. The Orioles refuse to discount the possibility of approaching slugging outfielders Juan Gonzalez and Barry Bonds about shorter-term deals. New York Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, whose preference is a return to the Bronx, is also a possibility.

Having learned hard lessons since the signing of Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract in 1998, the Orioles are also interested in creating a better clubhouse chemistry.

"Of all the things we talk about in discussing these players, makeup is critical in that clubhouse and in this environment," Thrift said. "The players who have positive makeup have an edge."

Possible contraction of two franchises has caused a split within the industry. Some franchises may wait for a resolution at next month's winter meetings in anticipation of a dispersal draft, while others, including the Orioles, intend to pursue free agents beginning today.

Thrift said yesterday the club may tender offers starting tomorrow. "I've had one or two players tell me through their agents they didn't want to procrastinate and wanted to do something as soon as possible," Thrift said.

Today represents the final day for teams to cement their major-league rosters, and Thrift said he is open to placing a waiver claim. Second in line to claim an AL player, the Orioles may consider Detroit Tigers first baseman Tony Clark, according to an industry source.

Angelos said earlier this month that he envisions next season as another step in his club's transition from a veteran, largely mercenary collection to a younger, more self-reliant franchise with free agents acquired as the final pieces of a more competitive team.

Thrift last week elaborated on the majority owner's comments by saying the club intended to be active but would refuse to pay a "premium" for any player. According to Thrift, a premium is more accurately defined as overextending the length of a contract rather than the average annual value.

The approach likely represents a concession from the Orioles regarding A's free-agent first baseman Jason Giambi.

The slugger is fixated by the Yankees, who are believed to have made him their primary quarry this off-season. Given a strong chance of repeating as AL Most Valuable Player when balloting is announced today, Giambi said last season he had no interest in signing with a rebuilding club.

A preference for shorter-term deals may not exclude the Orioles from competing for Gonzalez or Bonds. Gonzalez signed a one-year contract with the Indians before last season and parlayed it into a monster season for the AL Central champions.

Bonds, 37, is coming off a record fourth MVP season, a campaign built on his major-league-record 73 home runs with the San Francisco Giants. The New York Mets are among those believed to have significant interest in his left-handed bat.

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