O's swing into free-agency search

Beattie: Adding big bat No. 1 priority, not pitcher

Baseball

November 10, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Baseball's free-agent market opens today, and Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan look like two kids who just won a $1,000 spending spree in a toy store.

They will walk into the Arizona Biltmore Hotel this afternoon for the start of baseball's general manager meetings as the envy of their peers.

While teams across baseball keep talking about trimming payroll, even if it means trading away star talent, Beattie and Flanagan have millions burning a hole in their pockets.

With so many different options and so many needs, the Orioles' possibilities seem endless. But the team has a basic blueprint for this offseason, and this past weekend, Beattie provided a glimpse:

The top priority, Beattie said, is finding a big bat, not getting a top pitcher.

The free-agent list includes an assortment of top starting pitchers, including Andy Pettitte, Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, Greg Maddux and Sidney Ponson, and the Montreal Expos may need to trade budding young ace Javier Vazquez, but the Orioles have identified a more pressing need.

"I know there's been some talk of finding a No. 1 starter," Beattie said. "I don't know if that's as much of a priority for us. It really just kind of depends on how the market shapes up, whether we'll be able to go after that."

The Orioles still hope to re-sign starting pitcher Pat Hentgen, after declining his $4 million option last month.

And though insiders say they will likely non-tender the contracts of Jason Johnson and Damian Moss, they'll still have several pitchers vying to start next spring, including Rodrigo Lopez, Kurt Ainsworth, Eric DuBose, Matt Riley and Omar Daal.

By midseason, top prospects Erik Bedard and Denny Bautista could also be in the mix.

"I think we may decide to try to beef up our offense and go with our young pitching," Beattie said. "We feel we've got some arms that are going to be able to keep us in games and build up the bullpen."

Vladimir Guerrero is a primary target.

"I think he'd certainly be one of the top two or three," Beattie said.

That doesn't mean the Orioles will get him. The New York Yankees and New York Mets will be two of several challengers for his services. Last season, back problems limited him to 394 at-bats, but at age 27, he's a career .323 hitter with 234 home runs.

Other big-bat options could come through a trade.

Tampering rules prevent Beattie from delving into specifics, but he said he talked to six or seven GMs on Thursday at a salary arbitration seminar in Chicago, and that was just over lunch.

Teams such as the Kansas City Royals (Carlos Beltran), Florida Marlins (Mike Lowell), St. Louis Cardinals (Jim Edmonds, J.D. Drew, Scott Rolen) and Milwaukee Brewers (Richie Sexson) are crying for help in reducing payroll, which could force them all to move some offensive stars.

"There have been some players that some teams have tried to move," Beattie said. "Some of their salaries are OK, and some of them aren't."

Shortstop options could include Brian Roberts, Beattie said.

With Jerry Hairston at second, insiders say the Orioles would rather move Roberts to shortstop than overbid for free agent Miguel Tejada. They plan to make a strong run at Kazuo Matsui, the speedy, switch-hitting shortstop from Japan, but if they don't get him, they will likely move Roberts to shortstop.

Third base options could include Melvin Mora, Beattie said.

Once again, the Orioles aren't going to get pigeonholed here. The free-agent market is thin at third base, and rather than overpay in a trade for the likes of Lowell, the Orioles can turn the position over to Mora, their super-utility man.

"We've had conversations with Brian Roberts about moving over to short," Beattie said. "We've had conversations with Melvin about playing third, so all those things are in place, but I think they give us some flexibility, too."

At catcher, defense is the priority, Beattie said.

So while two of the top free agents are Florida Marlins catcher Ivan Rodriguez and Atlanta Braves catcher Javy Lopez, the Orioles might be happy to upgrade their offense at other positions and sign a more reliable defender behind the plate.

"Obviously, the focus is going to be on a defensive catcher," Beattie said.

"You need a defensive catcher, but if a bat comes with it, that's great. That could fill two needs with one. Obviously, Rodriguez is out there, and I think we still have interest. It just depends on how that market develops."

The payroll is going up, but Beattie won't say by how much.

"I have an idea, but I probably shouldn't say," he said.

Still, the Orioles can't hide their smiles now that they're out from under the Albert Belle and Scott Erickson contracts. Tony Batista declared free agency, they declined the $4 million option for Brook Fordyce and, last season, they traded Sidney Ponson and Jeff Conine.

Those six players combined to make $37.4 million last year.

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