After having their multi-year offers and "Confederate money" routinely refused last December by mid-level free agents, the Orioles are asking manager Mike Hargrove and members of his coaching staff to help extend a personal touch this time.
Hargrove has contacted at least two of his players while manager of the Cleveland Indians - outfielder Kenny Lofton and closer Steve Karsay - to assist the Orioles' dollars-and-sense approach.
Though neither player has indicated where he will ultimately sign, the organization hopes Hargrove's credibility and its ability to offer more prominent roles than those extended by more settled, contending clubs might obtain a veteran framework for a rebuilding clubhouse.
"You go after guys like these if you have the ability to acquire them, and we have that ability," said Hargrove, who projects Lofton as an everyday center fielder and Karsay as his closer while other teams envision them as a flanking, platoon outfielder and a setup pitcher.
The Orioles' pursuit of Indians free-agent outfielder Marty Cordova is also gaining momentum, industry sources say, with the possibility of a deal this week.
Cordova didn't reach Cleveland until after Hargrove's ouster there but worked closely and productively with Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley while with the Minnesota Twins.
Cordova, 32, was named American League Rookie of the Year in 1995 before hitting .309 with 111 RBIs in 1996. He revived his career while earning $600,000 last season with the Indians and is now envisioned as potentially the Orioles' cleanup hitter for 2002.
Vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift fully endorses Hargrove's participation, hardly a surprise after last winter when the Orioles unsuccessfully over-bid for free-agent shortstop Jose Valentin and reliever Jeff Nelson, a Catonsville native who grew up hoping to one day become Cal Ripken's teammate. Valentin accepted a less lucrative deal to remain with the Chicago White Sox while Nelson defected from the New York Yankees to the Seattle Mariners.
"We're in the recruiting business. Therefore, it's the manager, the pitching coach [Mark Wiley] and anyone else who's been involved with any of these players" who gets involved, said Thrift, so frustrated last winter that he said he felt like he was offering "Confederate money."
The Orioles understand they now represent a tough sell. Four consecutive losing seasons, scattershot trades, the loss of cornerstones Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and Mike Mussina, and ownership viewed with suspicion conspire against their effort.
"You appeal to their competitiveness and where they will play," Hargrove said. "It depends on what they require. Does a guy want to be a starter or a closer? Does a guy want to be an everyday player or a sometimes player in left field? Believe me when I say 99.9 percent of the players are in this game to compete. [It's] more than money."
"We're working to make the team better," Thrift said. "Most players in baseball watch our team and what we have. They know we have good young pitchers and good young players. Players evaluate each other. We tell them personally what we're trying to do this year."
Lofton, 34, was Hargrove's center fielder and leadoff hitter when the Indians reached the 1995 World Series. Traded to the Atlanta Braves during spring training 1997, Lofton endured an uncomfortable, injury-filled season before signing a four-year, $36 million deal to return to Cleveland in 1998. The Yankees and Oakland Athletics have shown interest in Lofton as a left fielder; the Orioles, especially Hargrove, believe he still has enough speed and aggressiveness to handle center field at Camden Yards.
"Kenny doesn't run as well as he did when he was 28. But Kenny still has good instincts and is in great baseball shape. He still gets to a lot of balls a lot of other people don't get to," Hargrove said.
Karsay and Wiley forged a relationship in 1998 and 1999. Under Wiley, Karsay moved to the bullpen and perfected a split-fingered fastball. The Orioles now see him as a potential closer.
Hargrove spoke with Karsay last month, impressing upon him a role as the centerpiece for a more balanced bullpen while trying to dispel myths about a ballpark that has tormented closers Armando Benitez, Mike Timlin and Ryan Kohlmeier since Randy Myers' 1997 exodus.
"With pitchers, Camden Yards has always been known as a bandbox. It's not anymore," Hargrove said.
But Oriole Park may not be Karsay's preferred destination. Newsday reports today that the Yankees appear close to landing the reliever to fill a setup role.