At least unyielding Orioles aren't saps, too

ON BASEBALL

December 19, 2004|By JOE CHRISTENSEN

The problem with being prudent in baseball's frenzied swap market is you sometimes get taken for a sucker.

How else to explain the hysteria emerging from Chicago last week with several reports saying the Orioles have shown serious interest in trading for Sammy Sosa? No way, several major league officials told The Sun. Not unless the Cubs agreed to pay upward of 80 percent of Sosa's salary over the next two years, or about $32 million.

The Orioles may have the look of the guy who put off all his Christmas shopping until the last minute, but frustration hasn't given way to panic.

Yes, their wish list once included Carl Pavano, Richie Sexson and Tim Hudson. And, yes, those three all joined new teams last week. But the Orioles put themselves in smart position on all three fronts and moved on each time with their dignity intact, even as they remained empty-handed.

Sure, Orioles officials admit Sosa's name piques their interest. But the seven-time All-Star has fallen on hard times. He's 36 and his production is in steady decline. Since 2001, his on-base plus slugging percentage has dropped from 1.174 to .993 to .911 to .849.

His reputation was smeared with his infamous corked-bat incident on June 3, 2003, and he lost the support of Cubs fans last season when he had a well-publicized falling out with manager Dusty Baker.

Also, fairly or not, Sosa is viewed within the baseball industry as a player who may have benefited from taking steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. Though he has repeatedly denied steroid use, the suspicions intensified last month with reports that Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds had admitted, in grand jury testimony, to using steroids.

So the Cubs are looking to trade Sosa. And the Orioles are still in the market for a power hitter, with Sexson signing in Seattle and their talks with Carlos Delgado going nowhere.

But the chances of Sosa landing in Baltimore are still remote.

Sosa's contract makes him very difficult to trade. He will make $17 million this season, and if he gets traded, it automatically triggers his $18 million option for 2006. There's also a $19 million option for 2007, with a $4.5 million buyout.

So the team that trades for Sosa is taking on at least $39.5 million, in addition to all his baggage. "Even if you had to pay half of that, it's still not even close," one baseball man said last week.

One problem for the Orioles is they don't have any unsightly contracts to unload back on the Cubs. The New York Mets are viewed as a better fit because they'd like to rid themselves of Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd.

Remember Piazza? That's another name that routinely gets linked to Baltimore because the Mets are desperate to move him, and everyone else assumes all the recent losing has made the Orioles stupid.

Remember Floyd? In early 2003, the Orioles made the outfielder a three-year, $19.5 million offer, but the Mets landed him with a four-year, $26 million deal. At the time, the Orioles took heavy criticism for failing to land another big-name player.

But as vice president Mike Flanagan often says, in the long run, "it's not the players you don't get, it's the players you do get."

Though the Orioles won't say so publicly, insiders say they are being more careful this offseason out of fear their revenues will plummet with another team scheduled to move into Washington next season.

Last year, they overpaid for Miguel Tejada when they gave him a six-year, $72 million contract, but his durability made him a safer bet. He has played in 756 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the majors.

This year's free-agent class has some bigger gambles.

The Orioles reacted to baseball's escalating market by offering Pavano more than they ever thought they would - four years, $40 million - and he took similar money to pitch for the Yankees, who play an hour from his parents' home.

With Sexson, the Orioles decided they couldn't risk a four-year contract for a player coming off a major shoulder injury, so they drew the line at three years, and Sexson landed in Seattle, the closest team to his Portland, Ore., home.

Looking back, Pavano and Sexson were both long shots.

Hudson was not. The Orioles could have had him, and many of their baseball people were distraught Thursday when the Oakland Athletics traded him to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Charles Thomas and pitchers Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz.

But those baseball people also knew the reality: Hudson was never going to sign a contract extension with the Orioles. He was born in Columbus, Ga., and lives in Birmingham, Ala. Hudson's agent told anyone who would listen that the Braves were probably the pitcher's preference.

Oakland general manager Billy Beane asked the Orioles for left-hander Erik Bedard and pitching prospects Hayden Penn and John Maine. A source close to the discussions said the Orioles would have parted with that package, or something very similar, but only if they could have signed Hudson to a contract extension.

Beane knew that wasn't happening, so he refused to even let the Orioles and other teams have a 72-hour negotiating window with Hudson. It became a staring contest; the Orioles never blinked.

In the process, the Orioles learned just how valuable Bedard, Penn and some of their other pitching prospects are in this market. According to baseball officials, the Florida Marlins have insisted on those same two names in all discussions involving starting pitcher A.J. Burnett.

But like Hudson, Burnett is a free agent after 2005, and the Orioles won't do it without a contract extension.

Are the Orioles just being stubborn? Yes. But at least they're not being stupid.

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