TUCSON, Ariz. - The Orioles are getting ready to hit the free- agent market, and this time they aren't thinking small.
Syd Thrift, the club's vice president of baseball operations, said yesterday the Orioles have already expressed interest in Jim Thome, Cliff Floyd, Ivan Rodriguez and Edgardo Alfonzo.
The market officially opens tomorrow, when teams are allowed to make financial offers to other clubs' free agents. Up until now, teams had only been allowed to talk financial terms with their own free agents, but Thrift said he has been in contact with the agents for Thome, Floyd, Rodriguez and Alfonzo.
"We've expressed interest," Thrift said. "As far as signing them, it'll depend on the economics. I think if it makes sense, we'll do something. But it's too early to know right now."
Thrift is leading the six-member Orioles contingent at the Major League Baseball general managers' meetings, exploring potential trades with other clubs and attending various league-wide seminars. Though Orioles owner Peter Angelos continues to search for Thrift's replacement, with a decision expected sometime this month, Thrift is anything but a lame duck. He continues to lay the groundwork for what figures to be a busy offseason.
One year after being notably quiet in the free-agent market, Angelos has given indications he will try to sign one and perhaps two impact players to bolster a club that finished last in the American League in hitting with a .246 average.
The Orioles finished the season on a 4-32 slide, and the owner realizes the fan base needs a jolt.
Besides searching for a big bat, Thrift said the club has expressed interest in free-agent pitchers Woody Williams and Paul Byrd.
"One thing you can never have is too much pitching," Thrift said. "You can always use a 200-inning pitcher and a 15-game winner."
Three notable free-agent pitchers who aren't on the Orioles' wish list are Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. But they will be high- priced commodities, and the club has long felt its greatest need is a run-producing hitter for the middle of the lineup.
Thome, 32, is the highest profile player on the market, and the Philadelphia Phillies have been very public about their interest in the Cleveland Indians' first baseman. He was in Philadelphia over the weekend on what basically amounted to a recruiting visit, and the club is reportedly prepared to offer him a five-year, $75 million contract.
Thrift did not indicate whether the Orioles are ready to make Thome an offer or what that offer would be. Thome hit .304 with a career-high 52 home runs last season and has hit 30 home runs in each of the past seven seasons.
Though the Orioles have finished fourth in the AL East in each of the past five seasons, they have a couple of things working for them in the Thome sweepstakes: the chance to play for former Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove and the chance to take swings at the short porch in right field at Camden Yards.
Sign Thome and paint a target on the warehouse.
"He's been with one organization his whole career," Thome's agent, Pat Rooney, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer last week. "So, if he leaves, he has to make sure it's the right circumstances."
Thrift said he has had multiple telephone conversations with Rooney, just as he has with Floyd's agent, Sam Levinson, and Alfonzo's agent, Peter Greenberg, who also represents the Orioles' Melvin Mora.
"I have relationships with these people that go back to the '80s," Thrift said. "Some of them since the '70s."
Like Thome, Floyd is a left-handed power hitter, but his price figures to be more reasonable. Floyd, who turns 30 next month, made $6.5 million-compared with $8 million for Thome - and hit .288 with 28 home runs in 146 games combined for Florida, Montreal and Boston.
Rodriguez, who turns 31 Nov. 30, has long been an Angelos favorite. Considered one of the finest defensive catchers, Rodriguez made $9.6 million last year with the Texas Rangers and hit .314 with 19 homers in 108 games. He did, however, miss two months with a herniated disc in his back.
Alfonzo, 29, hit .308 with 16 homers for the New York Mets last season, but they have yet to make him an offer. He made $6.2 million last season and remains a viable target for the Orioles because he's a good right-handed hitter and can play both third base and second base.
A common denominator for the aforementioned hitters is their age. Angelos is said not to be interested in San Francisco Giants second baseman Jeff Kent, for example, because he will be 35 when the season starts. Kent is certainly in his prime now, but he might move past it a couple of years into his new contract.
Williams, 36, went 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA last season for the St. Louis Cardinals. He made $7.25 million last season, including $1 million deferred, and has expressed displeasure with the Cardinals for calling him a top priority but not backing it up with the right offer.
The Orioles are more likely to push for Byrd, who went 17-11 with a 3.90 ERA for the Kansas City Royals last year, making just $850,000.
NOTE: The Colorado Rockies would like to move Arundel High graduate Denny Neagle, but the left-handed pitcher has $37 million remaining on his contract, and the Orioles aren't interested.