D.C. puts crimp in winter budget

ORIOLES FOCUS

Baseball

A Look Inside

September 26, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The thought of having the Montreal Expos set up shop 35 miles down the road was starting to settle in as a new reality at the B&O warehouse last week, and Orioles officials weren't too happy about it.

Vice president Mike Flanagan said he couldn't be sure how an Expos move to Washington would affect next year's payroll, but it's probably safe to assume it will take a hit.

Flanagan said such a move by the Expos would trim 30 percent from the Orioles' revenues. So it's no wonder club officials described their collective mood as uneasy, as Major League Baseball entered the final stages of its relocation process.

A year ago, the Orioles were one of the biggest players in the free-agent market, when they nabbed Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Sidney Ponson and Rafael Palmeiro for a combined $121 million.

When Peter Angelos made those commitments, he did so trusting that commissioner Bud Selig and his fellow owners wouldn't move a team into an area where it could steal from the Orioles' fan base.

The thought of paying Tejada his $12 million per year seemed a lot easier when the Orioles could count on television revenues from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

So for now, Angelos is waging a one-man battle against the establishment, trying to preserve the Orioles from an uncertain financial future. The effects are being felt all the way into the dugout.

"I don't know what the answer will be [on the Expos], or what kind of impact it will have, but I'm sure it will have an impact," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said. "I don't want it to happen, but that's selfishly speaking."

There's a theory that a new team in Washington would do the Orioles some good because it would force them to compete for loyalties. But no matter how deep Angelos' pockets may be, he can't just turn this into a spending war with a new Washington team.

For one thing, baseball's new debt-service rules restrict the amount teams can spend. Before teams can stockpile long-term contracts, they have to prove they can still come close to turning a profit. And it's a lot tougher turning a profit when you lose 30 percent of your revenues.

This was supposed to be another exciting offseason for the Orioles, another chance to build on their recent progress. Granted, that progress has been slow, as the team inches toward its seventh consecutive sub-.500 finish.

But with the improvements made to the offense, the Orioles could be one or two solid pitchers away from becoming legitimate contenders for next season. From a payroll standpoint, the Orioles are in an enviable position, with $18 million coming off the books when the contracts of David Segui, Omar Daal, Marty Cordova and Buddy Groom expire.

This year's payroll was $55 million, and they were offering Vladimir Guerrero another $13 million per year before he signed with the Anaheim Angels. A year ago, Angelos was willing to spend big.

But will he be so generous this time if his baseball people go to him with requests to sign free-agent pitchers such as Carl Pavano, Derek Lowe and Eric Milton?

Perhaps, but if Washington gets a team, the game will change. And when you're trying to compete in a division with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox -- two teams with seemingly limitless resources -- this is a disadvantage you just don't need.

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