Scoring safely, soundly

Even after free-agent spree, O's seem set up for long term with payroll lower than 2003's

Orioles' Offseason Moves

January 16, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

In the ever-shifting world of baseball economics, the Orioles may have just witnessed the perfect storm.

Part of it was planned. Part of it was luck. But just when Orioles owner Peter Angelos was ready to reach for his pocket book, most of baseball's other big spenders turned into cheapskates.

As a result, the Orioles have landed four of the top free agents on the market - shortstop Miguel Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and starting pitcher Sidney Ponson - without overspending their bounds.

In fact, even after doling out those four contracts, the Orioles are still projected to spend less on their player payroll in 2004 than they did in 2003.

A year ago, when they were still saddled with contracts for the injured Albert Belle and Scott Erickson, the Orioles' payroll was about $60 million. That number factors in the amount they recouped from the insurance companies for those two unusable players.

This year, the Orioles' projected Opening Day payroll stands at about $56 million.

That's a far cry from the $200 million the New York Yankees are reportedly set to spend this year.

Actually, $56 million is a far cry from $84 million, which is where the Orioles' payroll peaked in early 2000 before the big salary purge at that year's trade deadline.

"I think we're very satisfied with it," Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said yesterday. "I don't know about better [than they expected] or anything like that. But I think we're satisfied with where we ended up and what we were able to accomplish to make us very competitive this year, and then maintain it."

To get to $56 million, The Sun added the money committed to players already under contract and made estimates for players who will go through salary arbitration over the next month.

Beattie said that total is "pretty close" to the team's own estimates.

The real question is, will the payroll still go up? "In all likelihood, no," Beattie said.

But Orioles insiders say the team is still combing for bargains on the free-agent market and leaving itself open to trade possibilities involving other teams that are trying to dump salary.

In September, Angelos indicated he was willing to raise the payroll past $60 million "if the opportunities are there."

Even as they worked to finish their deals for Palmeiro and Ponson, the Orioles had a six-year, $78 million offer on the table to free-agent right fielder Vladimir Guerrero.

He spurned that offer to sign with the Anaheim Angels this week, leaving some hungry free agents banging on the warehouse doors, but Beattie said, "That's not money just waiting to be spent."

Ah, the joys of being rich.

How it came together

The Orioles were in an enviable financial position this offseason, as nearly $28 million came off the books when the contracts for Belle, Erickson, Tony Batista and Brook Fordyce expired.

That helped the Orioles aggressively outbid the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers for Tejada, who had won the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player Award for the Oakland Athletics.

Desperate to end a streak of six consecutive losing seasons and knowing their first priority was offense, the Orioles had Tejada at the top of their list.

As they waded into the market, they were relieved to find some of the biggest spenders of offseasons past - the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and Texas Rangers - weren't out there making their lives more difficult.

Just three years earlier, the Rangers had gone after another MVP-caliber shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, and come away with a 10-year, $252 million bill.

Tejada signed his six-year, $72 million deal in mid-December, and the whole perception around Camden Yards changed.

Next, the Orioles wanted a catcher, and they practically had their pick of two All-Stars, Lopez and Ivan Rodriguez.

Sensing limited interest in either player from anywhere else - Rodriguez, a postseason hero last fall for the Florida Marlins, is still unsigned - the Orioles grabbed Lopez for three years, $22.5 million.

Lopez is no slouch. He hit 43 home runs last year for the Atlanta Braves, and the Orioles added a third piece to the middle of their lineup this week, when they signed Palmeiro to a one-year, $4.5 million deal with an option for 2005.

Palmeiro - who has hit at least 38 home runs in each of the past nine seasons, the past five with the Texas Rangers after leaving Baltimore - said he was surprised he didn't have more teams making him multi-year offers.

By last week, the Orioles thought they were in the driver's seat to land Guerrero. Then the Angels swooped in and signed him to a five-year, $70 million deal with an option for 2009 that could raise the total to $82 million.

But even without Guerrero, the Orioles have given their offense quite a makeover, and if they continue to spend this offseason, the next moves will probably address pitching.

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