Decision to retain Mora is a winning move for O's

ON BASEBALL

May 20, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY

This isn't just what the Orioles needed to do.

It's what they had to do.

In what looks like another playoff-less season, give the Orioles credit for signing third baseman Melvin Mora yesterday to a three-year, $24 million extension (with a $1 million option buyout) that keeps him here through at least 2009.

Sure, it took longer than it should have. Sure, a less loyal player may have pulled the plug on negotiations at the end of March. And, sure, Mora will be in his late 30s before this contract expires, leaving no guarantee he'll keep up the production that has made him one of the league's best third basemen over the past two-plus seasons.

But this team has to get into the habit of locking up its talent. It has to find guys who want to play here. It has to keep guys who want to be a part of this community. It has to show the fans that, yes we're losing, but we're trying here.

The front office took a step toward that goal by signing right fielder Jay Gibbons over the winter. They did it again yesterday with Mora. And they should do it again within the next year for second baseman Brian Roberts.

Once Roberts is signed to an extension - and top members of management have said privately there's no way they are going to let him walk after 2008 - the club will be a first baseman short of having one of baseball's best infields through 2009.

Mix in Gibbons, outfielder Nick Markakis and pitchers Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Chris Ray with Roberts, Mora, shortstop Miguel Tejada and catcher Ramon Hernandez, and that's an above-average nucleus.

Some wise moves to fill in the obvious holes - a first baseman with a power bat, a center fielder, a veteran, top-tier starter and dependable middle relief - and a little luck and the Orioles could finally rise out of mediocrity.

That's a lot of ifs, of course. But that discussion is for another day. Today's one is of guarded hope. Not just because Mora was signed, but for what had to occur for that signing to happen.

The Orioles have a standing policy, one that's been in place for a half-dozen years: No-trade clauses are no-nos. Owner Peter Angelos hates them.

One club source said Angelos believes when you allow a no-trade clause you forfeit your only real leverage if a player's skill, or more pointedly, a player's attitude erodes. The only other alternative is to release the guy and eat the money - not a palatable solution for a mid-market team. The theory has some merit.

Anyone who has followed the Orioles knows that what Angelos wants, he usually gets. This is his team, his money, his rules.

The source said Angelos also was concerned about giving a third year to a player who will be 37 in 2009. In that aspect, he's not alone.

One American League general manager said Mora was definitely an $8 million player and likely would get more on the open market. But the GM added, "I'm just not sure I'd go three years on him."

It's not surprising, though, that the Orioles did. Mora, who originally wanted a four-year deal, wouldn't have accepted two years and an option. And, with a weak free-agent market and a dearth of third-base prospects, the Orioles have no better alternatives for next year, 2008 or likely 2009.

So the only real sticking point was the no-trade clause. In this case, it shouldn't have been a major concern. Mora's not the kind of guy to come into camp out of shape or with a bad attitude. The only reason to deal him is if his skills deteriorate - and if that happens he won't fetch much in a trade anyway. Even without the clause, he'll be able to veto any deal as a 10-5 player (10 years in the majors; five with one team) toward the end of 2009.

What agreeing to the no-trade clause signifies, however, is a willingness to be flexible if the circumstances are right.

"There were some concessions on our part. I think there were some concessions on [Mora's] part," executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "And I think we both walked away happy."

So should Orioles fans.

A highly likable guy who has given back to his team and his adopted city has been rewarded. Plus, the Orioles have a quality third baseman at market value or better to add to an impressive infield for three more seasons.

Most of the past eight years have been bleak. There's no guarantee it will get better soon.

But this is one time the club's front office and owner deserve some credit.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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