Deadline can wait, but C. Lee nice O's fit

July 26, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

Stop your whining.

The deadline for making trades without waivers is looming five days hence and a lot of people are viewing it as some kind of make-or-break situation for the Orioles, though nothing could be further from the truth.

The July 31 waiver deadline is only important for teams that have a chance to win this year and teams that are in a total rebuilding mode, neither of which is the case in Baltimore. The Orioles, despite the pessimistic view of the moaning multitudes, are not back to Square One. They may not even be that far from competing for a wild-card berth.

That's why it should neither surprise nor alarm anyone if the deadline passes with little more than some housecleaning deals. The Orioles want to ship out Javy Lopez and maybe Jeff Conine for prospects, but I'm guessing that they won't be committing $35 million over two years and two months to acquire Phillies star Bobby Abreu.

It's not that Abreu wouldn't upgrade the offense, but the Orioles need a dynamic power guy at the heart of the lineup and Abreu has proved over the past year that he is not that guy, which means he's not worth the $17 million he's guaranteed through next year and the $18 million option for 2008 the Orioles would have to pick up to get him to go along with the deal.

There also have been whispers about Phillies slugger Pat Burrell, but he's got a back-loaded contract that would scare Warren Buffett and it doesn't look like he'd be willing to waive his no-trade clause anyway.

If there is one perfect addition to this team, it is Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Carlos Lee, who is on his way to a career year and is expected to be one of the most popular players to enter the free-agent market if the Brewers don't deal him in the next few days. If the Orioles could persuade him to join Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora and Ramon Hernandez in the middle of their lineup, it is much easier to see everything else coming together to make the Orioles truly competitive next year.

Of course, this is where I always hear the same chorus: The Orioles aren't capable of signing that caliber of player because Peter Angelos isn't willing to spend that kind of money and, for that matter, marquee players don't want to come to Baltimore no matter how much money is thrown at their feet.

I'm the first to admit that Orioles fans have come by this defeatist attitude honestly. Eight straight losing seasons - soon to be nine - will do that to you. But I'm not sure such curmudgeonly conventional wisdom holds after the restructured Orioles front office made several solid acquisitions last winter.

Jorge Julio for Kris Benson? That was a steal. Ramon Hernandez for four years and $28 million. Great signing. Corey Patterson for, geez, I don't even remember anymore. It was a successful offseason, but all anyone remembers is that it was the winter of Miguel Tejada's discontent and it was the winter when the Toronto Blue Jays re-emerged as a potential AL East superpower.

Still, for the Orioles to take a giant step forward will require the same kind of boldness that the Blue Jays displayed in signing B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett, and it will require a more strategic approach to the free-agent market than they have employed in past years, when top players turned up their noses at legitimate offers and accepted less to go elsewhere.

Orioles fans are understandably skeptical about the club's chances of winning a major free-agent auction, and they have every right to be, because the team historically has taken a very deliberate approach to the bidding process. That has to change if the front office is to make a successful bid for Lee or any other top-flight talent.

It should be apparent by now that the Orioles' string of losing seasons is a major impediment to attracting quality free agents, so the club will have to pre-empt the market to avoid another situation (Paul Konerko) where they end up being the highest bidder but never get a chance to write the check.

If Lee is available, the Orioles need to set up a meeting with his agent on the first day that teams are allowed to bid on free agents and make him an above-market offer that is tough to refuse. Then tell him that the offer is valid for 24 hours and after that it will be off the table for good.

Obviously, that's a risky, hardball approach, but it's the right approach for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it probably will work. Nobody really knows how the market will play out, so offering Lee a very acceptable contract - say, $65 million for five years - will make it hard for him to gamble on the future. If he turns it down, at least the club will not waste the winter in a futile attempt to outbid other teams while it could be exploring other options.

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