Free-agent pitchers get cold shoulder from O's

Young starting nucleus lets club focus on hitting

November 13, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX - In the early stages of what figures to be a defining offseason for the Orioles, one thing is already becoming clear: Vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan feel very confident about this organization's young starting pitching.

So confident, they seem willing to thumb their noses at all the front-line starting pitchers on the free-agent market.

Andy Pettitte, Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, Greg Maddux and former Oriole Sidney Ponson will get their millions, but they probably will get them somewhere else.

The Orioles are one of the few teams in position to spend big money this offseason, but after assessing their needs, Beattie and Flanagan have made offense the No. 1 priority.

For the short term, this could mean that the Orioles go into next season with a starting pitching staff loaded with question marks. Rodrigo Lopez, Kurt Ainsworth, Eric DuBose, Matt Riley and perhaps a lower-tier free agent could shoulder the load.

For the long term, Beattie and Flanagan seem to be making a bold statement about just how good their stable of young pitching prospects - Denny Bautista, Erik Bedard, John Maine, Adam Loewen, et al. - can be.

It is the underlying philosophy beneath everything they're doing.

"We anticipate having a pretty young [starting] staff, so we want to have a veteran bullpen, and a solid defense," Flanagan said yesterday during a break at the general manager meetings.

When it comes to catcher, Beattie and Flanagan are thinking defense first because they know they'll need someone to help nurture a young staff. They still have their long-standing interest in Ivan Rodriguez, but they are also looking at free agents such as Brad Ausmus.

And when it comes to trades, Beattie and Flanagan are holding close to their young pitching prospects, a group that also includes Don Levinski, Ryan Hannaman, David Crouthers and Chris Ray.

"We have some very good reads on our young pitching, and we'll be careful giving up some of those guys," Beattie said. "But there are guys we would include in trades that I think would be very appealing to clubs."

The question is, how will this philosophy affect next year's starting staff? Industry insiders predict the Orioles will likely non-tender starting pitchers Jason Johnson and Damian Moss - setting them loose Dec. 20 without tendering them a contract. They still hope to re-sign Pat Hentgen, after declining his $4 million option, and as one club official said yesterday, "We need to find the next Esteban Loaiza."

The Chicago White Sox signed Loaiza two weeks before spring training, with a base salary of $500,000, and he finished second in the American League Cy Young Award voting.

Cruz's option declined

The Orioles told the agent for shortstop Deivi Cruz last night that they don't plan to pick up his $1.5 million option for next season. Instead, they will exercise his $200,000 buyout.

"They talked to us about having Deivi play a utility role," said Cruz's agent, Elliott Vallin. "I told them we'll test the market and see what happens."

Cruz hit .250 for the Orioles with 14 home runs and 65 RBIs, but his .269 on-base percentage was among the lowest of any regular position player in the AL.

Beattie said the Orioles are considering moving second baseman Brian Roberts to shortstop next season. That won't force them to overpay for a free-agent shortstop such as Miguel Tejada or Kaz Matsui.

The Orioles have until Saturday to decide whether to pick up their $1.2 million option for reliever Kerry Ligtenberg.

Shooting down the rumors

Beattie and Flanagan spoke with St. Louis Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty yesterday, but one player who probably won't be headed to Baltimore is Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds. He has a limited no-trade clause and did not include the Orioles on the list of teams to which he would approve a trade.

Sources close to New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza have said that he would love to come to Baltimore in a trade, but high-ranking Orioles officials have said they're not interested. Piazza, 35, is under contract for $15 million in each of the next two seasons, and in the AL. he probably would spend most of his time as a designated hitter.

The Milwaukee Brewers continue to shop first baseman Richie Sexson, but the Orioles are probably out of the running.

Rodgers talks to Allenson

Orioles minor-league director Doc Rodgers spoke with Triple-A Ottawa manager Gary Allenson about his plans to leave the organization and pursue a big league job. Rodgers recommended Allenson to the Boston Red Sox for their major league managerial opening.

"He did not want to come back to Ottawa, primarily because it's the minor leagues," Rodgers said. "That would be a last resort. I told him, `Hey, let's keep the door open. A minor league job is better than no job. Lets get out there and look around once the World Series is over and see what openings get filled and what opportunities are out there.' For what he did for us, loyalty says if he doesn't have a job, I should have a job for him."

Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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