In end, loss of Guerrero may not be such a downer

Slugger's back problems raise memories of Belle

Commentary

January 11, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Orioles were seduced and abandoned. Vladimir Guerrero smiled, batted his eyelids and then walked down the aisle with somebody else, leaving this slightly insecure baseball town to wonder if we're just not smart or pretty enough.

He agreed to terms with the Anahem Angels yesterday and passed up $78 million guaranteed non-Confederate dollars, which has to register as a major disappointment to an Orioles franchise that is on the verge of a competitive renaissance.

It is not, however, the end of the world.

The 27-year-old superstar might have hit 50 homers a year at Camden Yards. He might have provided the kind of additional star power that puts an extra million fans in the seats. And, though it's hard to imagine with the pain of rejection so fresh, the Orioles just might be better off without him.

Guerrero was a risky proposition from the start. He missed a big chunk of the 2003 season with a lower-back injury that was still troublesome enough to make it impossible to fully insure the giant contract he was offered.

If the Orioles had signed him to a six-year deal and his back flared up this year or next, they could have been looking at another disastrous Albert Belle scenario.

The O's were willing to take that chance because of the dynamic impact he figured to have on an offensive lineup that already includes free agent arrivals Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and -- this just in -- Rafael Palmeiro, but who really believed at the beginning of the offseason that they would sign four 30-homer guys in one winter?

Orioles fans had a right to be excited after the club signed a former American League MVP (Tejada) and a catcher who hit 43 homers last year (Lopez), but who could have imagined after six consecutive losing seasons that Oriole Nation would come down with a case of inflated expectations?

Alas, the Orioles will have to settle for being vastly improved over the team that finished fourth again last year. The offensive attack already had been upgraded dramatically when the club announced yesterday that Palmeiro had agreed to return and make the team even more appealing to fans yearning for a reason to come back to the once-crowded ballpark.

Don't misunderstand. Guerrero would have helped the Orioles get back above 3 million in attendance and reactivate the strong revenue stream that made the franchise one of the financial giants of the 1990s.

But his decision to go elsewhere simply triggers a different set of contingencies. The front office can refocus on catcher Ivan Rodriguez and, if they land him, split the catching and DH duties between I-Rod and Lopez in a way that maximizes the productivity of both players.

The club also could defer some gratification and preserve that money for next winter, when a new set of stars will become available on the free agent market.

No one is banking on overtaking the perennial AL East-champion Yankees this year, though that seems far more plausible now than it did two months ago.

No one could seriously portray the Orioles as equivalent to either the Yankees or the upgraded Boston Red Sox. But that could change quickly if a couple of the club's young pitching prospects step up this season and create a scenario where one major pitching acquisition next winter might make the difference.

What if that $78 million that Guerrero doesn't accept this year creates the opportunity to sign a pitcher such as Chicago Cubs star Kerry Wood a year from now?

The Orioles were the laughingstock of the American League after they lost 32 of their final 36 games in 2002, but opposing general managers weren't laughing when the club traded Sidney Ponson and Jeff Conine for group of solid pitching prospects last summer.

The infusion of young talent and the huge reservoir of un- spent payroll made the club a sleeping giant that only now is beginning to stir.

One GM who is known for squeezing the most out of his budget (but would rather not be identified giving advice to the opposition) believes that the Orioles would be better served by spreading their largesse over two winters, since it would create more long-range flexibility and moderate the negative impact of a big contract gone sour.

"If you spend all your money right now," the GM said, "you could be locked in for another four or five years if a couple guys get hurt and things go bad."

Those sentiments took on greater relevance when New York Mets general manager Jim Duquette confirmed during a conference call last night that Guerrero's back was uninsurable. The Orioles would have been more exposed than they were when they gave Belle $65 million five years ago.

The Orioles' front office has chosen to take the more aggressive approach, but only if the numbers and personalities fit the program. The Orioles should sign Rodriguez if he and Lopez are agreeable to sharing the catching role, but Orioles fans should be happy with the progress that already has been made this winter. Everything from here on out is gravy.

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