Shallow pool of free agents could drive Orioles batty

October 20, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

THE COMING offseason is supposed to bring Phase 2 of the Orioles' uphill struggle to become more than just fodder for the Yankees and Red Sox.

Phase 1 was last winter's addition of Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez, a trio of free agents who could - and did - pump up the offense.

Phase 2 was supposedly about adding a No. 1 starter and other quality pitching to match those hitters.

But the free-agent market isn't cooperating.

The list of available pitchers includes just one certifiable, proven ace, Boston's Pedro Martinez.

Otherwise, there's a slew of No. 2 and No. 3 starters who can keep you in games but not necessarily win them.

Adding more hitting and striving to win 12-9 games in 2005 might be the best way for the Orioles to approach Phase 2.

Not that they would be wrong to pull an arm out of a pool of possibilities that includes Matt Clement, Carl Pavano, Russ Ortiz, Eric Milton, Kevin Millwood, Brad Radke and Derek Lowe.

Each would enable the team to allot a starting slot to a proven major leaguer rather than a youngster who might be ready. The Orioles had too much of the latter when the 2004 season began.

But none of those pitchers is the throwing equivalent of Tejada, a franchise-altering performer.

The only one of those on the market is Martinez, who will probably either return to the Red Sox or sign with the Yankees, his daddy. It's hard to imagine him settling for a lesser stage over the high-profile rivals who can afford his high price.

The problem is the No. 2 and No. 3 starters also are going to command significant dollars because of an industry-wide dearth of capable pitching, possibly pushing their salaries - and thus, their new teams' expectations - beyond what is realistic.

The Orioles should be familiar with such a predicament, having experienced it with Sidney Ponson in 2004.

They anointed him as an ace after signing him to a three-year, $22.5 million contract last December, but he went 3-12 before the All-Star break and finished with 15 losses, one of the American League's highest totals.

Ponson is a capable major leaguer, but with a 69-80 career record, he isn't an ace, no matter how hard the Orioles want him to be.

The good news for the Orioles is they didn't sign Ponson for ace money, roughly $12 million to $15 million a year. That gave them the freedom to pursue the free agents who helped revive their offense.

If they can sign another starting pitcher at the same salary level, they should. That makes sense. If they go any higher, they're overpaying.

That means their biggest expenditures probably would again go toward enhancing their offense, which is already potent, having finished third in the AL with a .281 average, just one point behind league-leading Anaheim.

No, it doesn't make sense for a team to address its strength ahead of its weakness, but if you're going to pay big money, you had better get a franchise-altering player.

The Orioles succeeded with Tejada, and the top free-agent hitters available this year include Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, J.D. Drew, Carlos Delgado and Magglio Ordonez, all players who could have a similar impact.

With a Beltran, Drew or healthy Ordonez (he's coming off two knee surgeries) in the middle of a lineup that already features Tejada, Lopez and Melvin Mora, you're talking about a playoff-caliber offense.

The Cardinals dominated the National League in 2004 with an offensive-minded team, and the Yankees have gone down the same road with their ridiculously potent (and expensive) order that starts with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui.

This year's Yankees are especially well-nicknamed as the Bronx Bombers, and you can expect them to add Beltran in 2005 now that he has taken advantage of his first shot at postseason glory with the Astros, sending the price for his services into an orbit only one team can reach.

The Orioles apparently are more interested in Ordonez, but he just switched to agent Scott Boras, who demands top dollar even for a client such as Ordonez coming off an injury. Sounds risky.

Drew is also a fine player, but he's prone to injury and also represented by Boras.

Delgado, a good friend of Tejada's, might make the most sense if he comes at a relatively cheap rate after struggling in 2004.

But whatever direction they go in, the Orioles are destined to continue to hit better than they pitch in 2005.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.