Sosa's shadow looms over stalled trade talks

ON BASEBALL

July 21, 2005|By Dan Connolly

IF THE A.J. BURNETT deal does not happen, if the Orioles fail to trade for the Florida Marlins' 28-year-old right-hander within the next 10 days, don't blame the Orioles' two-headed general manager.

Don't accuse owner Peter Angelos of meddling.

Don't point fingers at the Marlins or Burnett's agent for wanting too much.

If you want to blame someone, try Orioles right fielder Sammy Sosa.

He's the one who has created a need for another hitter. He's the one who has made the Orioles gun-shy at this critical point in the season.

This isn't piling on. This isn't the media finding a scapegoat and beating him down.

This is a legitimate snag in the Burnett negotiations that has an indirect but very real connection to Sosa's disappointing season.

Some background: When the Orioles traded for Sosa in February, they knew the likely Hall of Famer's offensive numbers were in sharp decline.

But there was little risk. The Chicago Cubs were picking up the majority of Sosa's contract. The price tag was three expendable parts. And Sosa didn't need to anchor a formidable lineup. All he had to do was blend in and produce a quiet 30 homers and 100 RBIs. If he bounced back with another 50-homer season, that would be gravy.

So far, Sosa has been a perfect gentleman in the clubhouse, but his on-field performance has been disastrous for a player of his status and salary. So much that one club official believes the team would be in the American League East driver's seat if it had had a legitimate cleanup hitter since Opening Day.

That's a lot to pin on one player.

But Sosa's ineptness has had a trickle-down effect on the team's performance, and now it may have seeped its way into trade negotiations.

If the Orioles acquire Burnett for a package of Jorge Julio, Steve Kline, Larry Bigbie and top pitching prospect Hayden Penn, they likely would have to accept Florida third baseman Mike Lowell, who is owed $21 million on a contract that expires in 2007. Right now, Lowell and Burnett are tied together.

Lowell, 31, has had 24 or more homers and 85 or more RBIs in each of his previous three seasons. This year, though, there has been a precipitous drop-off: .232 average, four homers and 38 RBIs through 84 games.

Sosa, 36, has hit 35 or more homers in 10 straight seasons. His streak of 100 RBIs was broken at nine last year. But in 2005, he has batted just .233 with 10 homers and 31 RBIs.

He's been the primary bust in the Orioles' lineup; Lowell's been the Marlins' biggest hole.

Now, in the middle of a pennant race, the Orioles face the possibility of having both in their order. Based on current numbers, that's a chilling proposition.

The hope is that Lowell is re-energized by a change of scenery and recaptures the stroke that made him a first-half All-Star in 2004. It could happen. But that was the same hope the team had for Sosa entering 2005.

Sosa's foundered. And now, one club source acknowledges, the Orioles can't be as willing to take another chance on a slugger seemingly in rapid decline, especially when it means dealing your top prospect and two other solid contributors for what might be two months of pending free agent Burnett.

The Orioles are on the hook for Sosa only through this season; they would be stuck with Lowell and/or his whopper contract for two more years. Not only has Sosa's situation made the Orioles think twice about Lowell, but it also "should put all of baseball on notice," the source said.

The bottom line is this: Sosa, Lowell, and to an extent, the New York Yankees' Jason Giambi, have picked a terrible time to struggle. All this could be coincidental. Players have bad halves, bad years. That's baseball.

But, in a season in which a new steroids policy took effect, if a slugger suddenly experiences a sharp offensive drop, there are going to be whispers that his previous output may have been chemically enhanced. Especially when there is no other easy explanation for the struggles, such as age, injury or past decline.

Yes, it's unfair. Yes, it's baseball's witch hunt.

This is a business, however, and the reality is players are investments. If they stop producing, a concrete reason is expected. Without that, speculation festers.

Sosa and Giambi have been on the front lines of the steroids debate, with former player Jose Canseco suggesting their involvement. To be fair, Lowell has not been anywhere near those discussions.

In some circles, it may not matter. Teams simply aren't willing to wait for an expensive slugger to rebound. It's understandable. The Orioles traded for Sosa, and for whatever reason, it hasn't worked out.

They are hesitant to try again so soon.

Especially with Sosa and his struggles still in the lineup.

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