Dollars and sense cost O's in bid to lure top free agent

Refusal to overspend looms large

losing feeds `Confederate money' label

March 04, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Maybe Syd Thrift was right. Maybe the Orioles are shopping with "Confederate money." Maybe that explains their inability to lure the next superstar to Baltimore.

With his familiar Southern drawl, Thrift used the words "Confederate money" tongue-in-cheek at the 2000 winter meetings after making some unsuccessful bids to acquire new talent.

Thrift never meant the organization any harm, but now, with the string of consecutive losing seasons at five, the stigma still applies. A fruitless winter trying to lure the likes of Ivan Rodriguez and Cliff Floyd from the free-agent market only perpetuated the perception.

"It's sort of hard to defend," said Mike Flanagan, who joined Jim Beattie in replacing Thrift atop the Orioles' baseball operations department three months ago today.

The Orioles' last big free- agent acquisition was David Segui, who signed a four-year, $28 million deal in December 2000.

"I've talked to other players, and it's not the place they want to play, because we've had some years where we've struggled," Segui said. "Players can become front-runners like a fan does. Whatever team's hot at that particular time is always the popular place to go.

"I kind of throw out the last two years. Now, we have two new people running the show in Flanny and Beattie, and I have confidence in both of those guys, with their baseball evaluation skills and everything. I think people are going to start looking at this team a little differently after this year."

For now, the challenge remains. Do the Orioles have to overpay to acquire premier free agents? After five straight fourth-place finishes in the American League East, the answer is probably yes.

But a closer look inside the negotiations the Orioles had this winter shows an organization that controlled its own fate. The reasons Rodriguez and Floyd are not Orioles had less to do with "Confederate money" than the club's decision to exercise financial restraint.

"We can't play the overspending game," Flanagan said. "Other teams can, but we can't. I think if you felt you were overspending and didn't get guys, then I would agree with that [Confederate money theory]."

The Orioles entered the offseason making no secret of their need to add a major run-producer to the middle of their lineup. They flirted with Jim Thome but never got serious before he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for six years and $85 million.

They made a late attempt to sign Hideki Matsui - offering him a similar contract to the three-year, $21 million deal he signed with the New York Yankee - but looking back, Orioles officials believe he was destined for pinstripes all along.

Late in the offseason, the Orioles made a one-year, $2.2 million offer to Jose Cruz before he signed a one-year, $2.8 million offer with the San Francisco Giants.

Cruz had 34 home runs and 32 steals for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001. But Orioles officials insist they didn't see Cruz as much of an upgrade over incumbent center fielder Gary Matthews, considering the cost for Cruz and Matthews' upside.

So basically, the Orioles' quest for a free-agent slugger came down to Floyd and Rodriguez.

The Orioles actually looked like the favorites to land Floyd with their three-year, $19.5 million offer. Floyd told reporters this past weekend that he was very close to signing in Baltimore until the New York Mets swooped in with a four-year, $26 million offer.

Orioles officials said they were never given a chance to counter that offer from the Mets by offering Floyd a fourth year, but Floyd said that fourth year of guaranteed money made all the difference.

The Rodriguez negotiations were even more complicated. After weeks of haggling, the Orioles offered him a three-year, $21 million contract with incentives that could have made the deal worth $10 million per season.

In the end, Rodriguez decided to sign a one-year, $10 million contract with the Florida Marlins, eschewing $11 million in guaranteed money for the chance to be a free agent again at season's end.

Rodriguez's agent, Jeff Moorad, said he came away feeling as if the Orioles really tried to make things work for his client. The incentives would have kicked in after 400 plate appearances per season and would have reached $10 million once Rodriguez played in 130 games.

Moorad does not subscribe to the Confederate money theory.

"Baltimore has always been an attractive spot, and ever since they built Camden Yards, it's been a very attractive place to play," said Moorad, who had two other clients - Rick Helling and John Valentin - sign with the Orioles after the Rodriguez negotiations. "I don't fault Peter Angelos and his regime in the least for holding to their player evaluations and making tough business decisions."

With exhibition games under way, Beattie and Flanagan have turned their attention to the trade market, but so far, they have found limited interest in players such as Sidney Ponson (making $4.25 million this season), Melvin Mora ($1.73 million) and Jerry Hairston ($1.55 million). All three of those players were arbitration eligible this past winter, and other teams have told the Orioles they're too expensive.

That won't stop the new regime from trying to swing a deal that would make the offseason seem like the distant past.

"I think the bottom line is not who you don't get," Flanagan said, "but who ultimately you do get."

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