Forget Konerko

ON BASEBALL

O's best bargain would be B. Molina

October 15, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY

Chicago's Paul Konerko is on center stage in this American League Championship Series.

He's already the preeminent power hitter in the pending free-agent class, and he'll really cash in if he carries the White Sox like he did much of the regular season.

While most personnel types will be studying Konerko, he shouldn't be the main attraction for the Orioles this October. Instead, majority owner Peter G. Angelos and new executive vice president Mike Flanagan should be focusing behind home plate when Konerko is in the batter's box.

That's where Los Angeles catcher Bengie Molina will be.

Molina - whom Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen recently called "the best catcher in baseball ... no doubt about it" - will be a free agent. He won't garner as much attention as Konerko. In fact, he's not among the highest profile players in a weak class. That's reason alone for the Orioles to target Molina - though catcher isn't their primary need.

The Orioles desperately want at least one quality starting pitcher and a cleanup hitter to put behind Miguel Tejada. They would love for that everyday addition to be a first baseman. It wouldn't hurt if he had leadership skills.

So, Konerko, 29, seems the perfect fit. But let's be realistic. Most contenders will talk to Konerko. The Orioles aren't a contender, and sadly, may not be for a while.

They'd have to pony up a truckload of bucks to lure Konerko here. Angelos may not be willing to do that. Even if he is, the Orioles likely would be a negotiating pawn again, standing by futilely while a star says thanks, but no thanks.

Besides, the White Sox have the desire and funds to hold onto the fan favorite.

"I will do anything, and [general manager] Ken Williams will do anything to keep Konerko here," Guillen said. "He is my true leader."

So scratch Konerko off the Orioles' legitimate wish list. There are plenty of others, such as Florida pitcher A.J. Burnett, though the selfish, immature rant that got him kicked off the Marlins in September may have scared off a franchise that led the universe in immaturity and selfishness in 2005.

That's where Molina, 31, fits nicely into the mix. Overpaying for him won't cost as much as overpaying for Konerko. His presence would allow the team to make Javy Lopez its primary designated hitter. And Molina has a track record mentoring young talented pitchers such as Angels starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana and closer Francisco Rodriguez.

"Bengie Molina has just been incredible since he came up on Day One," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "When a young pitcher comes up ... Bengie Molina has been there for him, for all those guys, and his contributions have really made a difference in our ballclub."

Two words to convince the Orioles that Molina is important: Daniel Cabrera.

The Orioles have plenty of young arms in need of mentoring - Erik Bedard, Hayden Penn, Chris Ray - but none is as talented or enigmatic as Cabrera. Sometimes he is unhittable; other times awful. On occasion, the 24-year-old Dominican seems like he's adapting to the majors; other times he's purposely hit batters or yapped at Miguel Tejada.

Having a standup veteran like Molina, a beloved countryman, catching Cabrera's every pitch would be invaluable. Plus, Molina would be able to clean up the bases that Cabrera's wildness clogs. One scout said Molina is the majors' best in arm strength, accuracy and quickness of release.

He's also above average in calling a game and blocking pitches and can hit for average and power - occasionally batting cleanup behind Vladimir Guerrero this season. That's something he shouldn't have to do in Baltimore, but could in a pinch.

Like the White Sox with Konerko, the Angels aren't eager to lose Molina. L.A. has the money to make sure he stays with the only franchise he's known. But Angels general manager Bill Stoneman has shown the tendency to let free agents walk if the organization has a suitable replacement. See Troy Glaus and closer Troy Percival for examples.

With Molina's brother, Jose, as a capable backup, and stud prospect Jeff Mathis waiting in the wings, Molina could be expendable if the price tag is too high.

Plus, there are some negatives with Molina. He is molasses-slow. He could command a four-year deal. And he's 31 - just shy of that 33-34 range when most catchers hit the wall - with a history of nagging leg injuries.

Some believe San Diego's Ramon Hernandez, 29, is the best free-agent catcher available. Hernandez doesn't have Molina's arm strength, but he's above average in all catching aspects, can hit and is younger. The Orioles probably couldn't go wrong with either.

Molina, though, is the one still playing October baseball.

Here's hoping the Orioles' front office is watching the ALCS closely.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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