O's concede a big trade isn't likely

Beattie says `sure-fire productive player going to be very tough to come by'

Griffey, Beltran seem out of reach

Run-producer still goal, but minor deal more likely

March 18, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Less than two weeks before Opening Day, trade noises are echoing throughout Major League Baseball, but if the Orioles make a move, it figures to be more of a whisper than a shout.

Ken Griffey or Carlos Beltran? No chance.

"A sure-fire productive player is going to be very tough to come by," Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said yesterday.

After striking out in their efforts to sign a major run-producer on the free-agent market, the Orioles entered spring training at least somewhat hopeful they could accomplish this longtime goal through a trade.

The Orioles called about Griffey, but the Cincinnati Reds said he's no longer available. The Kansas City Royals are still looking to move Beltran, but they're asking for things the Orioles simply don't have.

Most baseball executives expect to see some movement on the trade front between now and the March 29 deadline for teams to set their Opening Day rosters. Once this window closes, teams figure to stand pat for a while again.

"We still have efforts out there to improve the club," Beattie said, speaking only in general terms. "But if you rely on a trade [to fill a need], you cannot necessarily say it's going to be a done deal. And even if we get a player, there are going to be some people who say, `That's not good enough.'

"If they're looking for one of those premier guys, those are guys you can't get."

Last week, in the first trade of the Beattie and Mike Flanagan era, the Orioles moved oft-injured outfielder Chris Richard to the Colorado Rockies for power-hitting prospect Jack Cust. That deal might help the Orioles down the road, but it doesn't figure to have much effect this year.

In their latest player evaluation meeting, at least two Orioles coaches had Cust on their projected Opening Day roster, but the prevailing wisdom is he'll go to Triple-A Ottawa for continued seasoning.

What's next?

"The player we've always looked at," Beattie said, "is someone who has some upside, who might have even struggled last year. Take a little bit of a chance maybe in having a player return to form. Maybe he's in the last year of his contract."

The Orioles asked the Chicago White Sox about outfielder Carlos Lee, whose average over the past three years has dropped from .301 to .269 to .264.

Those talks went nowhere.

Kansas City released outfielder Mark Quinn last week, and the Orioles joined every other team in letting him pass through waivers with a contract that would have paid him up to $800,000 in incentives.

The Sporting News named Quinn its American League Rookie of the Year in 2001, but injuries limited him to 23 games last season and he tore scar tissue in his left hamstring this spring. Injuries aside, Quinn isn't high on the Orioles' list because of his high strikeout-to- walk ratio (186 to 56).

The type of player Beattie describes is a far cry from Griffey and Beltran. The Orioles haven't been the ones hyping those possibilities; they have simply answered honestly when asked if they had the money to take on players of that caliber.

Still, Beattie and Flanagan figure to take the heat if the season starts and they haven't made their big splash.

"You certainly want to manage the expectations of our fans and our coaching staff and players," Beattie said. "This is a challenge. We've got some opportunities out there, and we're just weighing those things now."

Beattie and Flanagan are also looking at the long view. In the American League East, where the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox sit loaded with talent, the Orioles don't consider themselves one hitter away from winning anything of note.

"Take a look at the clubs that are in the playoffs," Beattie said. "Their starting pitching is more consistent. I think our bullpen matches up pretty well, but our whole lineup would have to improve. Not that we can't win with some of the personnel we have here, but at the same time they'd have to have career years and we'd have to stay healthy."

The Cust deal was the Orioles' first trade in 11 months. With a barren farm system, they don't make a good trade partner now, but they do have major-league players drawing looks.

About four National League clubs have contacted the Orioles with interest in Melvin Mora, including the San Diego Padres, who are willing to move catcher Wiki Gonzalez.

So far, however, teams looking for starting pitchers have shied away from Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson. And teams looking for left-handed relievers have shied away from Buddy Groom and B.J. Ryan.

Just four months into their new jobs, Beattie and Flanagan have a tough task.

But from all indications, there is patience in the clubhouse. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove has long said the team needs to add a big bat. But with the chances of that happening soon looking slim, Hargrove said he isn't frustrated.

"There's more than one way to skin a cat," Hargrove said. "We need to dot all the i's and cross all the t's [to be successful this season], and we understand that."

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