Orioles' offseason plan is to shop till they drop

Improvements in outfield at top of list

pitching targeted, too



St. Petersburg, Fla. -- The shopping list begins with improvements in the outfield, held by a man who doesn't know whether he'll be pushing the cart much longer.

Jim Beattie rattles off the Orioles' various needs for 2006, unsure if he'll still be the team's executive vice president with his contract about to expire. Either way, he said they must find a first baseman, settle a bullpen that most likely will lose closer B.J. Ryan to free agency, shore up the starting pitching. A catcher with better defensive skills than Javy Lopez would be welcomed.

"Overall," Beattie said, dusting off a dry sense of humor, "I think that's all we have to do."

Someone should check the date on that list. It might read 2004.

Didn't the Orioles want to upgrade their rotation last winter, repair the bullpen, find a first baseman and corner outfielder with power? Weren't they hoping to lighten some of Lopez's workload behind the plate? This time, Beattie said a frontline starter or two might not be the first priority. Unable to trade for Tim Hudson or sign Carl Pavano last winter, they could seek more modest gains.

"We'd like to see what we could do with some starting pitching," he said. "I don't know if it's a front-of-the-rotation guy or just a more veteran guy who can be more consistent in the middle."

The Orioles gambled this year by making unproven Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard their No. 2 and No. 3 starters. The young duo was inconsistent - Bedard mostly because of a knee injury that occurred while he was 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA - but they gave the organization reason to be optimistic. And Rodrigo Lopez matched his career high with 15 victories.

The Cleveland Indians' Kevin Millwood, the AL leader in ERA, ranks as one of the more intriguing free agents, but his agent is Scott Boras, hardly a favorite of majority owner Peter Angelos. Los Angeles Angels left-hander Jarrod Washburn and the Florida Marlins' A.J. Burnett, a trade target for the Orioles at the non-waiver deadline, also are free agents.

"I'm real comfortable with the fact that if we can get one No. 1 starter, our starting pitching could compete in this division and be pretty good if they keep doing what they're doing," Orioles interim manager Sam Perlozzo said. "And that's the name of the game."

The outfield on Opening Day consisted of Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos and Sammy Sosa, but it's possible that none of them will return next season. Bigbie was traded to the Colorado Rockies, Sosa was a bust and Matos could be non-tendered after frustrating club officials with his defensive lapses and an approach that numerous members of the organization describe as "lazy."

Jay Gibbons hit 26 home runs and could stay in right field, his primary position after Sosa stopped playing. But the Orioles want to upgrade in center and left after Eric Byrnes went 16-for-117 in his last 41 games. B.J. Surhoff is 41 and contemplating retirement.

"We need to get better offense and defense from our outfield," Beattie said.

Third baseman Melvin Mora indicated he'd return to the outfield if needed. "I'll always do exactly what they want me to do," he said. "If they find a better third baseman than me, then I'll move. I love the Orioles. If you have to sacrifice, you sacrifice for the team that you love."

The gesture probably won't be necessary, though the Texas Rangers will listen to offers for Hank Blalock.

"He's done such a good job at third, I'd hate to see us have to do something like that," Perlozzo said of Mora.

Said Beattie: "Second base, shortstop and third base are in pretty good shape."

First base could use a personal trainer. The Orioles want to give Lopez some starts there in spring training - gearing him up at least for a part-time role next year.

"We've had some conversations with Javy and his agent about playing a little more first base," Beattie said. "That's something we'll take a look at."

"Hopefully, I play a little bit of first base," Lopez said, "but my main position is catching."

At least one high-ranking club official likes San Diego Padres catcher Ramon Hernandez, who angered Padres management when he underwent wrist surgery in the middle of the season. Angels catcher Bengie Molina is a free agent, but Los Angeles will try to keep him.

Lopez has no interest in being a designated hitter.

"That's because I want to play the game and I want to enjoy the game," he said. "As a DH, I don't enjoy the game. If they ask me to be the full-time DH, I'd say, `That's not really what I want to do.'"

With first baseman Rafael Palmeiro unlikely to be re-signed after his failed steroids test, the Orioles will consider power prospect Walter Young as an alternative. They made a serious bid for free agent Carlos Delgado last winter before losing him to the Marlins, and Paul Konerko is likely to leave the Chicago White Sox, but their reach might not extend as far this year.

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