Yankees, Red Sox keeping O's in their place

ON BASEBALL

December 07, 2003|By PETER SCHMUCK

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have spent the early weeks of the offseason engaged in a heated arms race, while the Orioles are still trying to find their legs.

There is only one thing left to do.

Petition for realignment.

The American League East has become baseball's version of Groundhog Day. George Steinbrenner pokes his nose out of a hole, outbids his shadow, and the Orioles are doomed to six more years of third or fourth place. Or so it must seem to the beleaguered fans of Baltimore.

The only near-term hope of competing with the Yankees was the possible disintegration of their big-name pitching staff. Roger Clemens apparently has retired. David Wells probably won't be back. Andy Pettitte is entertaining offers from the Houston Astros. And Jose Contreras isn't really all that.

The trade Thursday that added former Montreal Expos ace Javier Vazquez to the mix leaves the Orioles with little hope of closing the gap with their chief divisional rival, and the same goes for gaining on the Red Sox, who also took a giant leap forward with the acquisition of power pitcher Curt Schilling.

This is the discouraging state of affairs that now faces Orioles co-general managers Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan: If they succeed in signing either Vladimir Guerrero or Miguel Tejada - the top two hitters on the free-agent market - the blockbuster acquisition would barely get them back to where they were, in competitive relation to their chief division rivals, when the 2003 season ended.

Guerrero remains a real possibility, but Tejada appears to be pointed elsewhere, probably to the Anaheim Angels. It would take both of them - and at least one front-line starting pitcher - to challenge the binary power structure in the AL East.

The Orioles don't have the luxury of shifting their public focus to 2005, though that probably would be the most pragmatic thing to do at this point. They have placated their discouraged fan base with the promise of a big-money offseason and now must deliver some exciting free agents or risk losing the town outright to the resurgent NFL Ravens.

It's a sticky situation to be sure, but Beattle and Flanagan still have the resources to build a team competitive enough to create hope for a bright long-term future. There is enough money available to sign Guerrero, add one of the elite free-agent catchers (Javy Lopez or Ivan Rodriguez) and make a bold move to improve the front end of the starting rotation.

Those three moves would not create a complete ballclub, or even a sure-fire wild-card contender, but the Orioles also are banking on further growth from a trio of promising young hitters and a few surprises from the large group of young pitchers that has been assembled during the club's painful rebuilding period.

In other words, there still is room for hope, but Orioles fans might have to tap some hidden reservoir of patience to get through to the end of the most difficult period in the club's history.

Baseball economics 101

The rest of the AL East also can hold out hope that the Yankees eventually spend themselves into a corner. Theoretically, huge revenue-sharing and luxury-tax obligations should begin to weigh on the game's top-spending team, but it isn't going to happen overnight.

The Vasquez deal and the pending acquisition of free agent Gary Sheffield figure to add about $20 million per year to the huge Yankees payroll, but that will be offset by the departure of Clemens and Wells. The Yankees also have added some lesser players, but there is no evidence that their tremendous revenue stream is going to dry up soon.

Secondhand lions

If the Orioles fail in their effort to acquire a marquee run producer that fits into their long-term plans, they might have to settle for a stopgap veteran hitter to beef up the batting order.

Former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro is available and could sign a short-term contract to add some punch to the lineup. Palmeiro is 39 years old, but he has hit at least 37 home runs in every full season since 1993 and could be expected to hit 35-40 homers as the full-time designated hitter.

Strong suspicion

There is strong suspicion that Red Sox GM Theo Epstein convinced Schilling to approve a trade to Boston by assuring him that former Philadelphia Phillies manager Terry Francona would replace fired Grady Little.

That may not sound very good, but it's much ado about nothing.

Francona was the front-runner for the job when the Red Sox began their pursuit of Schilling. If Epstein used that possibility as part of his sell job to Schilling, then he deserves credit for moving aggressively to make a move on the Yankees.

The way the division is configured, the Red Sox and all of the other also-rans ought to go by the same two-word mantra: Whatever works.

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

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