Having second thoughts could be smart for O's

December 10, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

WHILE IT WOULD be far more entertaining to rail against the idiocy of the Orioles bailing on what they professed to be Job No. 1 this winter, it's beginning to look as if they might be onto something.

It's not that Carl Pavano wouldn't cost the Orioles a lot of money - he would and he'd be worth it. It's that the Orioles probably can sense the free-agent pitching market breaking totally against them.

Call it a splitter in the dirt, a slurve that breaks way behind the batter.

Sure, the Carlpalooza Tour made a heralded stop in Baltimore last weekend. There was the fuss and earnest effort to woo Pavano on the part of the Orioles' top brass, who flew in from the four corners of the earth.

There was the scoreboard operator beaming a picture of Pavano behind the right-hander as he tested the Camden Yards mound, and the clubhouse attendant who hung an orange Orioles jersey with "Pavano" on the back in what could be his new locker.

But probably not.

It's one thing to lure hitters and such top-line position players as Miguel Tejada to Camden Yards. The Orioles were eager enough to get that done, they "overpaid" for Tejada, who gives meaning to the phrase "worth every penny." Good hitters can come in, take their hacks against the Yankees and Red Sox and feel like they've done their best. Pitchers, meanwhile, are more self-protective. They acquire their stats primarily from winning.

Tough to get top-line pitchers to abdicate respectable strikeout totals and competent ERAs when 38 of the Orioles' games are against the two best lineups in baseball. And the Yankees haven't even signed Carlos Beltran yet.

Indeed, that's the reality facing the Orioles. It's hardly been an industry secret that they've had a heck of a time attracting pitchers. So it is that the rubber had barely kissed the runway in Southern California last night when Orioles officials started whistling Dixie about reversing course in securing an ace.

We want to sound surprised, shocked, incredulous, disappointed, betrayed.

We all know that in order to run with the big dogs, the Orioles need a front-line pitcher to anchor the rotation and further bolster team ego. It's tough to beat the Yankees and Red Sox if Bruce Chen is being penciled in for 20 wins. The Orioles might as well stick Kyle Boller in the middle of the rotation.

What else are we supposed to think, now that we hear the Orioles are "bristling" at the high price of pitching this free-agent season?

The instinct might be to wonder why the Orioles are suddenly alarmed by the $8 million contracts.

This can't be the same Orioles organization that just a few, miserable years back couldn't give away its "Confederate money," but is now capable of giving it away but refuses, can it? It is the same organization, but it's not.

The Orioles have taken one look at the free-agent pitching market and, outside of Pavano (whom they should still offer three years, $33 million and make him say no) they see no other top-notch starter worth committing big dollars to, not when they've banked their draft picks on young arms.

Adam Loewen is not going to win the 2005 Cy Young. That's tough to do from Bowie. But there is decent rationale about saying $6 million pitchers who are commanding $8 million aren't worth the risk, not when the Orioles have a fleet of arms.

Besides, could the Orioles do any worse than the first half of last year, before Ray Miller reported for duty and Sidney Ponson returned from Planet Loser.

It's one thing to think that the Orioles are seceding from the free-agent market for pitching and waving the white flag like Robert E. Lee. It's something else if they figure Pavano is not going to come here, anyway, so why not focus attention and dollars on Carlos Delgado and Magglio Ordonez.

The Orioles need serious upgrades in center, right, first base and at backup catcher nearly as much as a starter. This is a team whose reconstruction process can't give up at-bats to Luis Matos, or spend more time and money on Jay Gibbons.

The problem is that the free-agent market is a lot tougher for the Orioles to handicap and navigate, let alone influence even by a willingness to "overpay." It's not their fault. Agents are telling players the money is out there - because it is.

If Troy Glaus got $45 million for four years in Arizona yesterday and the Mets have offered Pedro Martinez $38 million and guaranteed four years, the money - and the budget-busting method of luring top talent - is out there.

It's certainly here in Baltimore, where Orioles owner Peter Angelos doesn't need a payoff from Major League Baseball on the D.C. franchise for cash reserves.

There's not a big-enough box of fiber flakes in the galaxy that could do more for the Orioles' systemic health and well being than the elimination of David Segui, Omar Daal, Marty Cordova and Buddy Groom.

Old, infirmed, expensive, non-tendered - gone, good-bye: These albatrosses are now officially former Orioles - leaving millions upon millions of dollars free for the spending.

That's why it seems just as likely that the Orioles believe they have little chance landing Pavano, so they're singing the praises of their young arms again. That's OK, as long as they land another major impact player like Tejada.

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