O's looking to mind needs and wallet at talent market

November 04, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

AFTER A 71-91 SEASON of wondering what 2002 American League MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada or big-hitting, soft-spoken Vladimir Guerrero would look like in an Orioles uniform, the autumn rumor mill has churned out new visuals for local baseball fans. To make sense of the speculation, one only has to load up on the requisite amount of psychedelic pharmaceuticals:

Manny Ramirez batting cleanup and aiming over the right-field wall at Boog's barbecue pit?

Alex Rodriguez in the three hole, anchoring an Orioles team seeking to take aim at Derek "He's Not a $200 Million Shortstop" Jeter and the Yankees?

With less than a week left before the free-agent market officially opens, it's amazing the kind of buzz the Orioles can attract by the mere prospect of their alleged impending spending spree.

The real bummer is that resurgent All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez - one of the Orioles' many near-misses last winter - wants to stay in Florida. He may even be willing to accept the same money he rejected last January from the Orioles. That leaves Baltimore to be currently perceived as prime dumping ground for big-dollar players that can't go anywhere else.

Not that the names Ramirez or A. Rodriguez aren't tempting - at a seller's discount.

"Those are intriguing situations and some very big contracts," Orioles vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie said yesterday. "These guys are very good players, but it's a question how much money a team is willing to spend. You're talking about payrolls of almost $200 million.

"Look at Sammy Sosa. He picked up his option [with the Cubs instead of testing his value on the open market]. Whatever commentary it is on their worth, it's very difficult for clubs to commit 25 percent of their payroll to one person - especially when the teams with the highest-paid players don't win the World Series."

Take that, Evil Empire. And take that, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox.

Three years after Boston and Texas notched insane salary marks for two of baseball's most coveted free agents, the punch line to the joke has emerged: The best players in the game can't make themselves happy, because no team they want to play for can or will afford them.

Too bad for A-Rod, who is far too good to be in this predicament, except that he listened to agent Scott Boras, whose fixation on dollars has so far marred a terrific, Hall of Fame career.

Unhappy with losing in Texas, A-Rod has the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels and Orioles on his trade list. Ramirez, who didn't want to leave Cleveland in the first place and would like a trade out of Boston, would have interest in New York or Baltimore, especially if Grady Little were here to manage this slugger from outer space.

Granted, the market has fallen in each of the three years since Boras finagled A-Rod's $252 million contract. A new culture of tightwad-ism has emerged among general managers except those named Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein. Baseball's salary lockdown in response to A-Rod's bank-breaker is so apparent, the players' union is threatening to file collusion charges.

But there's always Baltimore. Just before the opening bell on this winter's market, the only saving grace for baseball's overpaid dispossessed is the allegedly open wallet of the Orioles.

"We were approached at the World Series by some agents representing some very nice free agents," Beattie said.

Makes you wonder what's written on the gates at Camden Yards. Send us your 40-plus-homers-a-season hitters. Send us your Gold Glovers and 1996 AP Player of the Year - but only if his guaranteed contract is more than the gross national product of Portugal.

Contrary to popular, i.e. Internet, "wisdom," the Orioles are not in the market for a franchise player at any price, including two of the game's best that are suddenly available - for $18 million and $25 million a year. The Orioles see the market tapping out at $15 million a year or less for position players. They say they'll be both prudent and aggressive, although that's what they said last winter and their nets came back empty. No Cliff Floyd. No Hideki Matsui. No Pudge. No love at Camden Yards by the time September rolled around.

"The Orioles are not out to set the market. We have a responsibility to our payroll, but we will be aggressive with players. We will demonstrate that we want players, and we will work with free agents," Beattie said.

What is true is the Orioles will target position players as their first prize in the free-agent market, with the focus on one player until he can or can't be secured.

"It's one step at a time. You can't do it all together. We have some options. We could look at Brian Roberts at short. We've talked about Melvin Mora playing third. Jay Gibbons came in and played first, but a position player is first priority," Beattie said.

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