No deal means Penn is still in O's deck

May 21, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

Think back to July when Rafael Palmeiro was a hero and the Orioles were hanging with the big boys in the American League East.

Feel like 10 months or a lifetime ago? The burning issue back then - before Palmeiro's failed drug test was announced, manager Lee Mazzilli was fired, starter Sidney Ponson was released and the Orioles collapsed - was whether to make a deadline deal with the Florida Marlins.

A refresher: The Orioles almost traded relievers Steve Kline and Jorge Julio, outfielder Larry Bigbie and top pitching prospect Hayden Penn to Florida for starter A.J. Burnett and third baseman Mike Lowell.

It would have bolstered the present while selling off a potentially key part of the future. Orioles Nation was divided.

In retrospect, for all involved, it's best it fell through.

The Orioles eventually traded Bigbie, Julio and Kline in separate deals for Eric Byrnes (since non-tendered), Kris Benson and LaTroy Hawkins, respectively. Penn, 21, started the season in extended spring training but has done little to dispel his prospect status with a 1.48 ERA in five starts at Triple-A Ottawa.

Burnett, who along with Penn was the key to the proposed deal, has pitched just two games this season for the Toronto Blue Jays and is on the disabled list with an elbow injury. He would have helped the Orioles immediately after the trade (he was 4-2 with a 2.32 ERA last August), but he lost his four September decisions and was ultimately suspended by the Marlins.

In July, the Orioles' front office was split on Burnett's upside and durability, but the deal-breaker was the team's belief that he was going to test free agency and would be a two-month rental even if the club made a legitimate long-term offer. It was sound reasoning, since Burnett gambled and hit the lottery, signing a market-smashing five-year, $55 million deal with the Blue Jays.

The most interesting aspect of the non-trade, however, is that the best big leaguer of the group right now is Lowell, the expensive throw-in whom the Marlins desperately wanted to move and the Orioles hoped to avoid.

A quality veteran hitter and well-respected teammate, Lowell had his worst season in 2005, when he hit just .236 with eight homers and 58 RBIs. Last summer, he had two-plus years and about $21 million remaining on a back-loaded contract. The tight-fisted Marlins felt stuck with a player they once wanted to build their franchise around.

"It's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world," Lowell, 32, said last week. "The part that made me laugh more than anything was that I took less money and back-loaded my contract and then it comes back to bite me because it was such a burden. That's the business. What are you going to do?"

Lowell was traded to the Boston Red Sox in November along with pitchers Josh Beckett and Guillermo Mota in Florida's fire sale. The Marlins shed Lowell's salary and also picked up four prospects, including highly regarded shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

In turn, Lowell got a chance to start anew. He's taking full advantage.

Heading into yesterday, Lowell was leading the majors in doubles and the AL in extra-base hits, and he was tied with Trot Nixon for the team lead with a .317 batting average.

"For the Red Sox's sake, I am glad it is working out," he said. "In baseball terms, they took a gamble. I'd rather repay a team that took that chance. I am happy with that."

At one point last summer, Lowell said he thought the trade to Baltimore was a done deal. But, in addition to the Orioles' hesitation to rent Burnett, team management winced at the idea of absorbing Lowell's full salary.

The Orioles already had a declining slugger taking up space in their lineup in Sammy Sosa. And privately they were worried Lowell wasn't healthy - something he said was absurd.

"I always have some nicks ... but last year I was the healthiest I've been from an injury standpoint," he said. "So I'd love to blame it on something, but I can't."

When a player has an off year, Lowell said, everyone looks for a reason. But in baseball, extended funks happen.

"Everyone tells you why you are doing something without ever asking," he said. "I would give it more stock if someone in Baltimore ever asked me - through another player, through whatever - is your back hurt? Do your eyes need to be checked? Anything. I kind of laugh it off."

He said he doesn't take any special joy in beating the Orioles, "but I like hitting against them because I know they were scared off by the same money. Too bad."

In the end, it all fell in place for Lowell, who again is on a championship-caliber team. And though his resurgent bat would have been nice, the club is content to still own Penn's rights.

Ultimately, it was a non-trade that worked for everyone.

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