O's lose Ryan but hopefully lock up a lesson for future

ON BASEBALL

Commentary

November 29, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY

When the Toronto Blue Jays officially announced the five-year, $47 million landmark deal for B.J. Ryan yesterday afternoon, there was only one appropriate reaction.

"Wow."

A "Wow," and then a wince. And maybe, just maybe, after that came the realization by the Orioles' front office that there are two invaluable lessons here.

No. 1: The Orioles need to start locking up the young players they want to build around before they reach their free-agent years.

No. 1A: If the team is going to compete for the few difference-makers in what looks like another wacko offseason of escalating salaries for pockmarked talents, it's going to have to be aggressive and overspend.

The Orioles apparently are trying to accomplish 1A, as they are one of three teams (along with the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels) left in the bidding for slugging first baseman Paul Konerko. It would be a long shot, but it definitely would take the sting out of losing the team's closer yesterday.

Ryan is a standup guy who worked his butt off to emerge from middling middle reliever to All-Star closer and deserves his open-market cash grab. He's also a guy the Orioles didn't have to lose, one whom they reportedly could have signed for a respectable, three-year $15 million base deal last March.

The Orioles fell about $5 million short of that mark -- although some within the warehouse claim performance incentives would have come close to Ryan's asking price -- and the gap was never closed before Ryan's self-imposed Opening Day deadline.

If you want to bash the Orioles -- and November is prime Orioles-bashing season -- it should be because they didn't have the foresight to pay their quality setup man like an average closer before he blossomed into an elite one.

But as for not signing him now, as for not competing with the Blue Jays this offseason, put down the billy clubs and pitchforks. Team executive vice president Mike Flanagan and his troops did the right thing considering the money Ryan commanded and the potential replacement the Orioles have in 23-year-old Chris Ray.

The Orioles planned to offer Ryan a four-year, $26 million deal this week, but that ended when Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi suddenly morphed from Moneyball to Moneybags, shredding his mentor Billy Beane's concept that a high-priced closer is an unnecessary commodity. Ricciardi, who has about $30 million extra to spend this winter, wanted Ryan and got him. Toronto is also in the running for starting pitcher A.J. Burnett and outfielder Brian Giles -- which would fill two of the Jays' biggest remaining needs.

Admittedly, the Orioles have more holes than Toronto, so maybe they shouldn't bust the budget for one or two players. But, then again, survey the free-agent landscape. It's shallow on talent, thick with buyers and ready to explode like last year, when mediocre talents such as Jaret Wright and Kris Benson sealed $21 million and $22.5 million deals, respectively.

The Orioles brass expected to sign two starting pitchers last winter and then walked away from the insanity. Now, they are entering the fray again, with interest in second-tier options such as Paul Byrd, Tom Gordon and Nomar Garciaparra -- fine complementary pieces but not names that prove this team wants to win now.

They also have flirted with the remaining headliners such as Konerko, Burnett and Kevin Millwood. All three -- as well as Giles -- would be significant upgrades for the Orioles but aren't slam-dunk stars like Miguel Tejada or Vladimir Guerrero.

Still, to get one or more of the top free agents to come to Baltimore, the Orioles will have to take a lesson from Toronto, be aggressive and outbid everyone by a mile. Of course, that could blow up on them (see Belle, Albert), but at least it will show the fans that the Orioles and owner Peter Angelos are serious about competing.

Flanagan can't stop there, though. He needs to spend part of this winter making a run at Melvin Mora and Jay Gibbons -- who are both free agents at the end of 2006 -- and Brian Roberts, who has two full seasons left before free agency.

The Orioles must make an honest effort to retain that trio instead of waiting for next season to play out. Mora, who makes his offseason home in Baltimore, wants to return. Gibbons would like to as well, and probably can be had with a reasonable deal.

Roberts is really the key. It would be good form by the team to offer him security while he is rehabbing from elbow surgery. Maybe he bites, maybe he doesn't. Maybe Mora and Gibbons will want too much to return.

Solid offers can probably secure all three, and if they keep thriving, the Orioles end up with bargains. If not, at least they've made affordable mistakes on guys they know fit into the clubhouse and community.

The chance with Ryan is now gone, has been since March.

Yesterday's departure made it official -- leaving the Orioles without an established closer but hopefully with a couple lessons learned.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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