Sure, O's will sign a hitter, but they need pitching, too

ON BASEBALL

November 23, 2003|By PETER SCHMUCK

The Orioles are flush with cash and the free-agent market is bulging with attractive players, putting pressure on the club to come through with at least one big star to beef up a promising offensive lineup.

The fans are understandably eager to see Vladimir Guerrero or Miguel Tejada or some other big-name hitter posing at a winter news conference with an Orioles jersey. They have suffered through six straight losing seasons and will have no patience for a seventh, so they are waiting for a sign from the front office that this spring will be different.

It will.

There are too many quality players out there and too few teams with real money to spend, so the Orioles are all but certain to open training camp with a much more exciting lineup than anything that has been seen at Camden Yards since the breakup of the 1997 wire-to-wire American League East champions.

They are close to trading for a power-hitting first baseman. They have the money to sign one of the front-line free-agent catchers. They're in the hunt for Guerrero and Tejada, though ownership again appears hesitant to shop in the boutique section of this year's free-agent market.

It's going to be all good on the offensive side, but if the Orioles truly believe they can compete in the wild-card race in 2004, it's going to take a similar push to improve the pitching staff.

Co-general managers Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie have been decidedly coy about the pitching situation, even though it should be obvious to all that the Orioles are rich in long-term promise and very short on near-term depth and experience.

The recent loss of veteran starter Pat Hentgen to the rival Toronto Blue Jays underscored the glaring need to find a marquee pitcher to anchor the starting rotation. The Orioles have enough good young pitching to fill out the back end of a solid starting five, but they need to acquire a No. 1 starter and, probably, a decent middle-rotation arm to have a reasonable chance of jumping over the Blue Jays to challenge the Boston Red Sox for the No. 2 spot in the AL East.

There has been speculation for months that Montreal pitcher Javier Vasquez might be acquired to fill the top slot, and that apparently remains within the realm of possibility. Hentgen might have been that No. 2 or 3 guy, if his late-season performance was any indication, but he shouldn't be that difficult to replace.

The Orioles probably won't, however, use a big chunk of their free-agent budget to sign one of the top starters on the market. The top free-agent pitchers - Andy Pettitte, Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood - all would look good at the front of the Orioles' rotation, but Pettitte will end up in New York or Houston, Millwood probably will sign with the Atlanta Braves, and Colon would come with too much downside risk for the big money it would take to sign him.

The Orioles cannot afford to be overly cautious when it comes to bidding on the top position players, but Beattie and Flanagan are prudent to take a wait-and-see attitude toward the pitching situation.

Vasquez, if he really is available, would be a perfect fit, though the price in young talent figures to be daunting. The Orioles could then add another starter from the second tier of the free-agent market after teams decide in December whether to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players.

There would still be some uncertainty - and a lot riding on the emergence of young pitchers like Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose- but the outlook for 2004 would be dynamically transformed.

Can't wait to see how this all plays out.

Potential free agent

The biggest name on the non-tender list come December might be Seattle right-hander Freddie Garcia, whose declining numbers in 2003 have left the Mariners wondering if they can afford to go to arbitration with him.

Garcia, who was an impressive 60-29 lifetime going into last season, was 12-14 with a 4.51 ERA in 2003 and has experienced a drop in effectiveness in each of his past two seasons.

Still, he figures to be popular once he becomes a free agent. He won 18 games in 2001 and has won at least 16 in three of his five full major league seasons. Depending on the price, the Orioles would have to consider him, though the 31 homers that Garcia surrendered last year would be cause for pause.

Pujols deserved better

Congratulations to Barry Bonds for an unprecedented sixth MVP trophy, but you have to wonder how he got 28 of the 32 first-place votes in a season when St. Louis' Albert Pujols had such an outstanding all-around season for a contending club.

MVP voters gave Bonds a lot of credit for his club's runaway division title in the season immediately following the departure of Jeff Kent, but he appeared in only 130 games and drove in just 90 runs. In fact, he directly accounted for a total of only 156 runs (runs scored plus RBIs minus home runs), compared to 218 for Pujols.

Apparently, the voters also gave Bonds a pass for missing a chunk of games because of the terminal illness of his father, which is certainly understandable.

No one can say that Bonds wasn't deserving of the award, but it wasn't a slam dunk.

Expos outlook

Major League Baseball will announce in the next few days whether the Expos will return to Puerto Rico for a portion of their 2003 home schedule or play 22 games in Monterrey, Mexico.

The smart money is on San Juan, if only because that is the location preferred by the players, but the owners probably would like to test the market in Monterrey before making a decision on a permanent new home.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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