O's aim at targets

With pitching, power, defense in mind, team mulls free agents, trades

Baseball

November 03, 2005|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

Still more than a week away from being able to negotiate with other teams' free agents, the Orioles' needs are both obvious and numerous.

They want at least one starting pitcher and a capable closer if All-Star B.J. Ryan does what is expected and signs with another team. The outfield is sorely in need of an upgrade in power and defense, and the team's everyday first baseman and designated hitter are uncertain.

Executive vice president Mike Flanagan, vice president Jim Duquette and director of baseball administration Scott Proefrock have been in organizational meetings over the past week, discussing such predicaments. The Orioles' new-look front office has the task of filling such gaping holes in the team's roster with one of the thinnest free-agent classes in years at their disposal.

"We have a list [of players], but it's pretty extensive at the moment," Flanagan said. "We're going through the elimination process. You are not down to the target list at this point, but you are sort of going through, looking at the alternatives."

Flanagan and the Orioles have been predictably coy about the free agents the club will target, and any significant talks with agents of available players aren't likely to accelerate until mid-November.

But it is expected that the Orioles' wish list may be more notable for who is not on it, rather than who is. Despite having an opening at first base - Rafael Palmeiro is a free agent but will not be back after the fallout from his steroid suspension - the Orioles are extremely unlikely to make a run at Chicago White Sox slugger Paul Konerko, according to team sources.

One of the White Sox's many playoff heroes, Konerko is easily the top bat on the market, and he is expected to command a salary worth up to $14 million a year, a steep price for a club looking to fill a number of weaknesses.

According to sources, the Orioles also aren't likely to make long-term, lucrative offers to outfielders Johnny Damon (Boston Red Sox) and Brian Giles (San Diego Padres), because they feel that several of the organization's young outfielders, such as Nick Markakis and Val Majewski, aren't far away from making a major league impact.

And though the Orioles are vocal about their desire to improve the rotation, their search may not include Florida Marlins right-hander A.J. Burnett, widely considered the most talented pitcher on the market. Nearly dealt to the Orioles before the trade deadline this past season, Burnett is expected to earn about $13 million a season.

There are people within the organization who think that is too high of a price for a pitcher who has a sub-.500 record for his career, a history of injury problems and questions about his character. However, Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, said he expects to talk to Flanagan next week at the general managers' meetings in California.

The Orioles also are expected to talk to Eric Goldschmidt, the agent for Padres catcher Ramon Hernandez, who is one of the Orioles' top targets, according to a team source. The signing of either Hernandez or the Los Angeles Angels' Bengie Molina could result in the Orioles' moving Javy Lopez to first base, filling a hole there.

According to team sources, the Orioles likely will target the Cleveland Indians' Kevin Millwood and the Angels' Paul Byrd, two pitchers who are familiar with Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone from their days in Atlanta. The St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Morris, Los Angeles Dodgers' Jeff Weaver and the Angels' Jarrod Washburn are other options the Orioles figure to explore.

Though signing a top pitcher will be ultra-competitive because so few proven winners are on the market, replacing Ryan could be an easier proposition. San Diego's Trevor Hoffman, the Philadelphia Phillies' Billy Wagner, the Atlanta Braves' Kyle Farnsworth and Cleveland's Bob Wickman all could be available. But the Orioles, who feel Chris Ray is close to being ready for the closer role, are probably more likely to go after one- or two-year stopgap solutions, such as Philadelphia's Ugueth Urbina, the New York Yankees' Tom Gordon or Florida's Todd Jones.

"We're going through the process of who is available, but as far as the priority list, it's a lot of what-ifs right now," Flanagan said. "There are positions that you'd obviously like to upgrade. You'd like to upgrade the rotation, get some more bats, and you'd also like to improve the club defensively."

Flanagan has said with an improving farm system, the club has more flexibility to make trades and fill needs that way.

"It's certainly an avenue that you can explore," Flanagan said. "There are some conversations going on. There's nothing imminent, but there may be only one or two players that fit the bill and you may have to go through the trade route to get them."

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