O's front office honeymoon swings into spring

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

February 09, 2003|By Peter Schmuck

The Orioles will open spring training this week under new front office management. They will look toward the future with new hope for a long-term organizational turnaround. The Mike Flanagan-Jim Beattie era is about to begin in earnest.

This is all very positive, considering what has been going on the past few years, but it will take some major developments in the next few weeks to put an upbeat spin on the coming season.

The offseason - for all the excitement about the new front office hierarchy - turned out to be relatively short on actual on-field improvement.

The Orioles' roster still is out of balance and the offense still lacks that big bat that Flanagan and Beattie tried hard but futilely to acquire.

No doubt, they will talk trade with anyone who will listen early in training camp in an attempt to come up with a productive No. 4 or No. 5 hitter, but it only gets harder from here. The inability to take greater advantage of a glutted free-agent market could haunt the Orioles throughout the 2003 season.

Don't misunderstand. This is not an indictment of the new front office, which did not have the entire winter to rebuild the team. Beattie and Flanagan had to hit the ground running and adjust to a new economic environment, all the while faced with the same organizational image problem that caused former baseball operations chief Syd Thrift to wonder out loud whether free agents thought the team was trying to spend "Confederate money."

The Orioles were offering real American greenbacks, but apparently not enough of them to persuade free agent Cliff Floyd or Japanese star Hideki Matsui to wait out a multi-year rebuilding period.

Beattie drove a hard bargain with free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez, but it clearly was Rodriguez who refused to recognize the reality of the marketplace - signing a one-year deal with the Florida Marlins that included only $3 million in real-time salary.

Rodriguez is hoping the market will be better next winter. The Orioles were hoping that I-Rod would be willing to share some of the risk to justify a guaranteed three-year deal, which was not an unreasonable position considering his sketchy medical history. No one should criticize the club for resisting the urge to guarantee nearly $30 million over three years, though Rodriguez would have looked nice in an Orioles uniform.

It also is hard to fault the front office for being reluctant to add a fourth year to its offer for Floyd, another potentially impressive player who would have come to Baltimore with physical question marks.

The club, however, might end up wishing that it had loosened the purse strings slightly in negotiations with outfielder Jose Cruz, who could have been had for a much more modest two-year commitment.

Beattie carefully calculated specific values for attractive free-agent players and then stuck to them, displaying an admirable sense of fiscal discipline, but the decision to hold the line with Cruz will shake out in the Orioles' favor only if the team succeeds in acquiring a better hitter for the middle of the order at a price comparable to what the San Francisco Giants paid to sign the former Toronto Blue Jays star.

That may be difficult to determine, since a significant deal may involve some complicated salary tradeoffs, but any major spring acquisition figures to cost the Orioles at least one solid young player - a loss they could have avoided with a free-agent acquisition.

Flanagan and Beattie clearly recognize the need to add marketable players to the roster to shore up a receding fan base, but they are trying to address the team's short-term needs without negatively affecting the organization's chance to achieve long-term success.

It's a tough juggling act, so they can be forgiven for dropping a few balls along the way.

Common sense of collusion

The Major League Baseball Players Association smells collusion in the depressed offseason market that has kept dozens of free agents in limbo right up to the final weeks before spring training.

There have been complaints about identical offers from competing bidders and clear indications that ownership finally has decided to get a grip on the industry's salary structure.

Whether that constitutes the kind of illegal collusion that caused an arbitrator to fine the owners $280 million in the late 1980s is another story.

The players union had hard evidence back then, including inter-club communications that proved teams were acting in concert to shut down the free-agent market. This time, they are far less likely to find the "smoking gun" that would justify economic sanctions against Major League Baseball.

Too many factors - including the overall downturn in the economy and the increased payroll restraints built into the new labor agreement - justify the common desire to stay within budget.

Don't expect things to ease much next winter, because only sustained economic discipline by the owners will affect the biggest factor driving the payroll train: salary arbitration.

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