O's cannot afford cost of empty nest

January 30, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

THE IDEA of not having Cliff Floyd, Hideki Matsui, Ivan Rodriguez and/or Jose Cruz in an Orioles uniform this summer is not worth a major bout of midwinter apoplexy.

That kind of frustration is currently reserved for the Baltimore County public schools, which seem to cancel classes the minute a snowflake is forecast for Timonium.

Yet here we sit in snowy Baltimore. Floyd-less near Fells Point. Pudge-less in Charm City. Cruz-less at Camden Yards.

Anyone buying tickets to Orioles FanFest? Jay Gibbons is signing autographs. Please, resist stampeding.

Yesterday's acquisitions of Jeff Reboulet and John Valentin bring to Baltimore the kinds of solid, veteran utility infielders you love to have around. But they aren't the muscle in the middle of the lineup that the Orioles need.

Maybe the Orioles wouldn't be a wild-card contender if they had secured Floyd, Matsui and Rodriguez. We sure would have enjoyed finding out.

They were close with those guys ... until the Yankees signed Matsui, the Mets swooped in with a fourth year for Floyd and the Marlins did something typically mind-boggling, this time renting Pudge for $10 million.

Cruz? Hate the strikeouts and understand that he has never lived up to the draft hype from Seattle, but love the swagger, speed and pop he brings.

We understand that the Orioles need to be prudent, and that rebuilding the club can't be done in a day. But the Orioles need a dose of magnetism. It's important, even in an age when teams try to win without "stars."

That's why it's tough not to feel as if Christmas came and went and Santa forgot to slide down the Orioles' chimney. This has turned Baltimore's off-season glum, cold, vaguely Dickensian, particularly for baseball fans eager to see the Orioles inspire some glimmer of hope for an entertaining summer.

If the players union does formally charge owners with collusion, as it is considering, the Orioles had better watch out. This major-league outpost has done more than its share to try to keep free-agent salaries depressed.

Dual general managers Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan want to do something for the big club. They can turn their attention there now, having reassigned and hired farm team managers throughout the Orioles' minor-league system.

We've seen Flanagan look at the big board on his office wall, wondering how the Orioles can lure a franchise-quality player to their club before Opening Day.

Yet so far, as the free agents and non-tenured players slip away, it certainly appears as if the Orioles' strategy for bolstering their anemic offense relies on:

1. The complete desperation of unemployed players who can't get a nibble anywhere else so they succumb to the Orioles' lowball (by players' standards) offer, or,

2. The complete desperation of cash-strapped clubs with a mandate to unload payroll, even if the club has to pay a portion of the dumped-player's paycheck.

It's a strategy that has not worked. Yet.

This week, Beattie has again pushed the notion that he won't run the Orioles as if he's a guy in the stands.

"We have more information," he said.

Yeah, but the guy in the stands may be emboldened because he pays more for his seat.

As Beattie also suggests, the Orioles might still be able to benefit from teams needing to shed a few unsightly dollars. Beattie insists he has money to spend.

Still, at this rate, the way the Orioles are letting the market play out, it could be 2004 before they're comfortable extending bigger dollars to someone who could actually hit a home run - or 30. By then, the Orioles will owe no more money to Albert Belle or Scott Erickson. The coffers will be flush, even if fans are scarce.

This winter, though, the Orioles are not winning the fiscally responsible battle to establish the absolute bottom line in this new market. As firm as they try to be, other clubs up the ante on free agents.

It eases the pain of not getting Floyd, Pudge or Cruz to think that other baseball owners are living proof of the adage: There's a sucker born every minute.

The Florida Marlins did not need a catcher, let alone a $10 million catcher. They are not going to contend this season in the heavy-hitting NL East, not with the Phillies signing Jim Thome, the Mets signing Tom Glavine and Floyd, and the Braves landing Mike Hampton.

As silly as the Marlins were for signing Pudge as a public relations coup, Rodriguez was the bigger fool.

The free-agent market has been depressed for two winters now. Last winter, Bret Boone lamented the three-year, $24 million deal he signed with the Mariners. Boone thought it was low - and that there was collusion among owners. Guess what? The market is no better this winter. Long-term deals are still the safest bet. Had Pudge signed the three-year deal with the Orioles, he could have secured a minimum of $21 million. Instead, he has assumed tremendous risk.

Maybe the Orioles have, too. Coming up empty, so far, the Orioles run the risk of further promoting the perception that they can't nail an attractive free agent, reaffirming the possibility that Syd Thrift was right. It is Confederate money these Orioles are offering.

At some point, the Orioles have to stop worrying about making a bad deal - or signing someone for slightly more than what they consider fair value.

Note to Beattie, in whom we still trust:

This isn't the Expos you're running anymore. You are actually allowed to spend some of that Peter Angelos money.

Otherwise, the alternative is that instead of Orioles billboards featuring Floyd or Pudge or Cruz, the billboards feature someone named Chris Richard.

More stupefying, so could the No. 3 hole in Mike Hargrove's pencil-thin lineup feature someone named Chris Richard.

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