With winter meetings on tap, O's try to break free-agent ice



They failed in two attempts to get a power-hitting first baseman and have yet to address probably their biggest weakness by adding a veteran anchor to a young pitching staff.

As the Orioles' new-look front office descends on Dallas tomorrow for the start of baseball's annual winter meetings, the club's list of needs stands as long as it was two months ago, if not longer with All-Star closer B.J. Ryan's move to the Toronto Blue Jays.

But disappointed or discouraged, executive vice president for baseball operations Mike Flanagan and vice president Jim Duquette say they are not. "I don't think you can be discouraged," Flanagan said. "You have to keep staying after it, keep the goal in mind. We are trying to make the club better.

"I think we've put a lot of time in it already, and there's been a lot of groundwork done. We anticipate being very busy at the winter meetings. There is a lot of clubs calling to book time with us, to make sure we get together. I anticipate a lot of possibilities."

Flanagan is prepared for the skepticism from a fan base that has suffered through eight straight losing seasons, including 88 losses in 2005, one of the toughest seasons in franchise history. The Orioles went into the last offseason expecting to be major players. Instead, they settled for relievers Steve Reed and Steve Kline, and a late trade for Sammy Sosa, all of whom were great disappointments.

By most accounts, the Orioles have been more active this offseason, even though they have nothing to show for it. After failing to complete a trade for Florida Marlins first baseman Carlos Delgado, the Orioles targeted Chicago White Sox free-agent slugger Paul Konerko, and made the highest bid (five years, $65 million) for the first baseman, who opted to stay in Chicago.

They wooed Los Angeles Angels starter Paul Byrd with a two-year deal (and a one-year option) for $13 million. One high-ranking Orioles official acknowledged that Byrd was close to being a "done deal," before learning that the pitcher was visiting other teams. The Orioles have since withdrawn the offer to Byrd, who reportedly is mulling a three-year deal with the Kansas City Royals for more than $20 million.

"We know we need to make some changes and turn around the roster," Duquette said. "What you don't want to do is make a mistake. It's a matter of staying disciplined and not deviating from your plan. It's not a process where you can allow yourself to become frustrated. That's when you make a bad deal."

Still relatively early in the offseason, Flanagan and Duquette are both preaching patience, but there still are some ominous signs for the Orioles, who appear to be getting priced out of the market with several players. Baseball executives, league-wide, were shocked with the landmark, five-year, $47 million contract the Blue Jays bestowed on Ryan.

However, the deal that affected the Orioles the most was the three-year, $21.375 million contract Esteban Loaiza signed with the Oakland Athletics. Loaiza was considered a second-tier free-agent option, and his deal upped the ante on other players, like Byrd. It also sent the price tag on A.J. Burnett and Kevin Millwood, the top two pitchers on the free- agent market, soaring.

The Orioles have not had any significant talks recently with Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker. Orioles officials believe Millwood is more of a proven commodity and have had more interest in him than Burnett all along. But Millwood is represented by Scott Boras, whose clients usually sign late in the free-agent process.

"Certainly the state of the market is a concern," Duquette said succinctly.

It has also led to the realization that trades might be the best avenue for the Orioles, who are looking to upgrade in the rotation, bullpen, outfield and at first base. The Orioles are content with catcher Javy Lopez as their pursuit of San Diego Padres free-agent catcher Ramon Hernandez has cooled.

But the Orioles' problem with trades is that they are reluctant to give up young pitching unless they are able to sign a couple of proven arms elsewhere. That's why New York Mets starter Kris Benson, in whom the Orioles expressed interested, was such an attractive option, because his addition would have allowed the Orioles the flexibility of shopping a starter for a bat.

"We'd rather not trade out young pitching, but if there's a deal that makes sense, we have to be open to it," Duquette said. "We may be able to sacrifice one pitcher to improve ourselves offensively."


Five questions for the O's

Who's on first? Who knows? The Orioles wanted Carlos Delgado or Paul Konerko and got neither. Nomar Garciaparra appears to be next on the wish list, but first base may not be his desired position. Unless they can snare a young first baseman in a trade, they'll likely be left to pick from platoon-type options, like Kevin Millar, Jeff Conine and Scott Hatteberg.

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