With the Orioles already looking ahead to next season, take a sneak peek at the best soon-to-be-available players.

10 free agents ... and 10 price tags

Baseball Week

September 11, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN STAFF

IT'S SEPTEMBER, the first week of the NFL season and again the Orioles are playing out the string. To make matters worse, that new baseball team to the south is still in the pennant race, thanks in part to a Hall of Fame former Oriole.

So this is dedicated to beaten and weary Orioles fans - the ones who pray every day that the team is a couple of players away from making September meaningful.

Here are the 10 best members of the upcoming free-agent class and what makes them intriguing. There are few slam-dunks. And the Orioles may not buy any of them. But those are concerns for December. For now, peruse the grocery list.

1. Johnny Damon, outfielder, Boston Red Sox: He talks too much. His rock star persona wears thin. His throwing arm is suspect and he'll be 32 in November. Still, most teams would love to have him patrolling center field and batting leadoff. He doesn't have an ideal on-base percentage, but he works the count, and that helps the rest of the lineup. He'd be No. 2 if Roger Clemens were a legitimate free agent. But he'll only come back to the Houston Astros, so Damon gets this spot by default.

Prediction: The Red Sox keep him, but agent Scott Boras may have other plans.

2. A.J. Burnett, pitcher, Florida Marlins: He'll be the rich byproduct of a weak pitching class and a market desperate for quality starters. He's 28, throws in the mid-90s and had an impressive run this summer before hitting a recent slump. The Orioles will be a player in the Burnett sweepstakes, the way they were at the trade deadline, but expect him to command a four-year, $40 million deal or better, which likely is too rich for the Orioles.

Prediction: New York Yankees, of course.

3. Billy Wagner, pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies: The little left-handed closer with the sharp wit and 100-mph fastball can still bring it at the age of 34. He tops the list of relievers. He converted 32 of his first 35 chances this year and didn't allow a run in 11 August games.

Prediction: Here's a major limb to climb onto: The Virginia native gets closer to home as the Orioles sign him to a pricey, incentives-heavy, two-year deal to close games and mentor Chris Ray.

4. Paul Konerko, first baseman, Chicago White Sox: He's the best pure slugger on the market, and he'll get paid like it. The White Sox want to keep him, but they'll have to move other contracts to afford him.

Prediction: Could be a nice power replacement for Mike Piazza with the New York Mets.

5. B.J. Ryan, pitcher, Orioles: He's an All-Star, a lefty and a workhorse. Cha-ching! He wanted to stay here, but offseason negotiations never got off the ground. He could be back, but free-agent dollars and the allure of a winner could prevail.

Prediction: The Yankees want him to set up until Mariano Rivera retires, but the Atlanta Braves are a better fit.

6. Rafael Furcal, shortstop, Atlanta Braves: Absolutely the best middle infielder available. He has tremendous range, a great arm, excellent base-stealing ability and surprising pop. And he doesn't turn 28 until October. The Braves are afraid he'll be too rich for them.

Prediction: The Chicago Cubs need him at shortstop and atop their order.

7. Brian Giles, outfielder, San Diego Padres: He'll be 35 and no longer has 35-homer power, but he is still an on-base machine. The Padres want to re-sign him, but they also need to hang onto pending free agent Trevor Hoffman, a team legend.

Prediction: Houston, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Los Angeles Angels could be players if the Padres aren't.

8. Kevin Millwood, pitcher, Cleveland Indians: Last year at this time he was a declining talent with an albatross contract. Now he's a resurgent veteran facing a sweet payday. He's a perfect innings eater for a young Cleveland staff. But he's also a Boras client, so expect him to follow the money.

Prediction: Millwood is a typical future Met.

9. Matt Morris, pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals: In a weak crop of starters, Morris, 31, should get more attention than Jeff Weaver, Jamie Moyer, Paul Byrd and the volatile Kenny Rogers. But Morris has faded some in the second half and had a poor 2004 postseason.

Prediction: The Cardinals re-sign him.

10. Juan Encarnacion, outfielder, Marlins: There are other mildly intriguing outfielders available such as Preston Wilson, Matt Lawton and Jacque Jones. None, though, has Encarnacion's upside. Supremely talented, he hasn't had that monster season yet. So he might be a bit undervalued.

Prediction: The Blue Jays, with money to burn, grab him.

EXTRA BASES

Say what?

"The doctors have told me I can put [pizza] in a blender. But I want to fold it up and eat it with a six-pack of beer."

New York Mets outfielder Mike Cameron, who is still a week away from adding solid food to his restricted diet. Cameron suffered multiple facial fractures Aug. 11 when he collided with teammate Carlos Beltran while trying to catch a fly ball. He has lost 15 pounds since the collision.

Who's he?

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