Invisible now, O's must look toward '07

December 03, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

The holiday shopping season is under way, and all the Orioles need is a first baseman, a couple of outfielders, a couple of starting pitchers and a closer.

Anything else? Well, they could also use a better defensive catcher and a sturdier bullpen.

And so far they have done nothing about any of it.

An assortment of premium players have been traded, the list of attractive available free agents is shrinking, and the Orioles, as Jeopardy's Art Fleming used to say, are "just watching."

Granted, the winter meetings begin Monday and it isn't fair to assess a team's offseason until all moves are made and spring training begins, but given the generally modest talent still available on the open market, it's already clear that another offseason is going to pass with the Orioles merely plugging and tweaking their product rather than moving boldly to overhaul it.

That's probably not what you wanted to hear after eight straight losing seasons, but get used to it. The Orioles have become one of baseball's invisible teams, reduced to scrounging for crumbs on the fringes while real contenders jockey for the talent to take them to the playoffs.

Josh Beckett? Billy Wagner? Carlos Delgado? The Orioles weren't even in the game.

They're supposedly still in the running for Paul Byrd and Kevin Millwood, but don't get your hopes up.

The rumored trade of Jorge Julio for Kris Benson? I'd do it in a heartbeat, but I'll also believe it when I see it.

The Orioles did throw $65 million at Paul Konerko earlier this week, but you can always throw scads of money at players when you're pretty sure they aren't going to take it. Konerko, the heart of the White Sox, wasn't going to leave the reigning World Series champions for a losing team if the money was remotely equal, which it was.

It's actually more of a gamble to throw money that liberally at free agents who are really free, like Byrd, a capable veteran who would help stabilize the rotation. I'd like to see the Orioles use the same kind of aggressive approach with him as they used with Konerko. Go all out. Ante up whatever is needed. Get someone in here.

Not surprisingly, they offer money more grudgingly to guys who might take it.

When Konerko re-signed for $5 million less than the Orioles offered, it underscored the truth that became apparent in prior years when Delgado and Carl Pavano, among others, took less money to play elsewhere: Big names will always find a reason not to come here. Family. Geography. Instinct.

It's not personal. It's what happens to every team after this many years of defeat and dysfunction. You become unattractive. And then, invisible.

Of course, the Orioles are better off without Konerko, even though he has a big bat and would have filled an immediate need at first base. This organization should be pointing toward 2007 and beyond, what with all its talent slowly rising through the minors. Konerko, who already has a diagnosed arthritic hip condition at age 29, will likely be a liability in a couple of years, when the Orioles' youngsters are ready for the majors.

Instead of sinking so much payroll into one player who might start declining soon, they should be signing cheaper, short-term stopgaps who could provide a bridge to the youngsters while still solidifying the team in 2006. Byrd and Benson would fit right in. Nomar Garciaparra? Sure, I'd go for that. Jeff Conine? Great guy, but don't ask the fans to swallow that as an upgrade. And puh-leeze, don't ask them to settle for Julio as the closer, with the expectation that pitching coach Leo Mazzone will "save" him. The guy has talent, but he needs a new set of circumstances.

None of those veterans will step up and push the Orioles into the 2006 postseason, but if Konerko's refusal to take their money underscored any reality, it's that the Orioles simply aren't going to go from being losers to winners while depending on players acquired in trades and free agency. They just can't control the market or get enough people to come.

No, they aren't likely to become consistent winners again until their young players start showing up here en masse, guys like pitchers Hayden Penn, Garrett Olson, Sendy Rleal and Adam Loewen; and outfielders Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold and Val Majewski.

Come to think of it, now that it's clear how their offseason will go, the Orioles would be better off just admitting that they're really playing for 2007 and beyond. If anything, it would make being invisible less frustrating.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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