BOSTON - Painting a verbal portrait with platitudes, abstract responses and economic absolutes, Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift reached baseball's winter meetings yesterday afternoon as some Picasso of diminished expectations.
Are the Orioles interested in free-agent slugger Juan Gonzalez after meeting with his representative, Jeff Moorad?
Thrift hedged but did not repeat last week's tough-sounding refrain of "going in another direction," a suggestion the Orioles might stick around in case Gonzalez's slow-developing market doesn't extend beyond three years.
Is there interest in resuscitating a trade that would return Atlanta Braves left fielder B.J. Surhoff to Baltimore?
Not at this time, according to Thrift.
The Orioles may have more to say today as Thrift and his inner circle are scheduled to meet with the Philadelphia Phillies about a possible deal for third baseman Scott Rolen. Thrift also postponed a meeting until today with agent Scott Boras to discuss clients Barry Bonds and Johnny Damon.
The Orioles have publicly maintained a low level of interest in Bonds while mentioning lesser free-agent center fielder Kenny Lofton more often than Damon.
Boras continues to seek a larger market for Bonds, whose record 73 home runs have yet to elicit more than one known offer - a four-year deal from his old team, the San Francisco Giants. Boras is seeking a five-year deal worth an average $20 million for the 37-year-old left fielder.
Rolen, however, represents a strong pull to a franchise seeking to restore its identity following the retirement of Cal Ripken. While Phillies officials question whether the Orioles possess the personnel to secure Rolen, Baltimore is one of five franchises the Phillies believe has the most need for him.
Minimizing the club's chances of acquiring a contract averaging $10 million or more per season, Thrift allowed himself wiggle room for a sudden splash.
"I really believe everything has to be taken by a case-by-case basis," Thrift said. "If I said 'no' - and I would probably say 95 percent now is no - things could change and all of a sudden you think I lied to you. Anything is possible. Some things are more possible than others."
Rolen, 26, is eligible for free agency after next season and would likely bring the Phillies at least three players of consequence in a trade. Any discussions with the Orioles would likely begin with pitcher Sidney Ponson and include another highly regarded arm.
"I have no fear of trading three or four" players, Thrift said.
Pressed about the trade possibilities for Anaheim first baseman Mo Vaughn and Toronto right fielder Raul Mondesi, Thrift offered no specifics, citing rules against tampering. However, Vaughn's contract stipulates that he may be traded to only six teams - three designated by him and three by the Angels. Vaughn's choices are the Orioles, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
The former American League Most Valuable Player already has elicited charges of tampering from the Angels by suggesting he would welcome a return to Boston.
Vaughn, who turns 34 on Saturday, has three years plus an option remaining on a heavily backloaded six-year, $80 million contract and is coming off a season lost to a ruptured left biceps tendon.
"It's going to be very difficult. If it was easy, we wouldn't want to be here," Thrift said. "If I had a $90 million payroll, it would be easy. Then we'd find out a lot of players would want to play in Baltimore. Because, let's face it, what they want is money, m-o-n-e-y."
Majority owner Peter Angelos has sent mixed fiscal signals recently, vetoing several deals in part because they would force him to add payroll. At the same time, the Orioles signed free-agent outfielder Marty Cordova to a three-year, $9.1 million contract that stunned many within the industry.
Thrift denied he has received a mandate from Angelos to clear payroll but alluded to an anticipated drop in revenues next season. Angelos has scrutinized several possible hikes in ticket prices, but he is well aware of fan reaction given four straight losing seasons and a diminished payroll.
"I think the No. 1 job we have is stewardship," Thrift said. "It's very obvious that's been violated on a number of fronts by what's happened in the past - by teams, including this one."
The Orioles have interest in free-agent right-handed reliever David Weathers as a possible closer, though Thrift seemed to minimize the club's chase by citing Mike Timlin and Mike Trombley as lessons in the dangers of moving a middle reliever into a closer's role.
Weathers, 32, converted a career-high four saves and 2.41 ERA while splitting last season between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. His 80 appearances tied for fifth in the National League. He led the league by allowing a .144 batting average with runners on base.
Weathers' lead agent, Rick Thurman, said that about a half-dozen teams have shown consistent interest in his client and that the Orioles are one of two to project Weathers as a closer.
Because of Weathers' relative inexperience in the role, the Orioles likely would offer him a middle-reliever's base salary with bonuses.
The Orioles might expand their pursuit of a center fielder/leadoff hitter to free agent Eric Young, who served as the Cubs' starting second baseman last season while stealing 31 bases in 45 tries.
Asked about the club's interest in Young, Thrift conceded, "Possibly, yes. I guess I'm driven by his intangibles and his personality. He's a tremendous young man."