Money far from cure-all for O's

August 16, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

When the Orioles' nascent Mid-Atlantic Sports Network finally struck a deal with Comcast recently, it supposedly meant the team now would have more money to spend.

The fans, desperate for reasons to feel hopeful near the end of a ninth straight losing season, took that as a positive development. And it is.

But no one should believe opening the coffers alone might cure what ails the Orioles and immediately catapult them into contention with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Talk about fantasy baseball.

There are reasons to feel more optimistic lately, starting with the development of pitchers Erik Bedard and Chris Ray and outfielder Nick Markakis, but the Orioles' shortcomings are complex and ingrained, and you can't just throw money at some of them.

There is, for instance, the fact that owner Peter G. Angelos never trusts his baseball decision-makers enough to give them free rein, while intermittently interjecting himself into the process. I could cite chapter and verse going back to Pat Gillick's tenure, even earlier if you go back to the "Leo Gomez must play" debacle.

Angelos signs the checks and can do what he wants, but current vice presidents Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette are learning it's hard to be decisive or bold when you have to take into account a boss with strong opinions.

The aborted trade of Miguel Tejada to the Houston Astros in July illustrated several long-standing issues. It was a deal the Orioles should have made -- Astros ace Roy Oswalt was on the table along with 2005 All-Star third baseman Morgan Ensberg and a shortstop -- but that it didn't happen was as predictable as, well, the Orioles finishing fourth in the American League East.

One reason the deal collapsed was that Angelos is loathe to deal players with a lot of value. They can make you look bad.

You have to give up value to get value, of course, but Angelos' Orioles tend to deal only players whom the organization has already turned on or have modest value at best.

The Orioles also didn't go for Oswalt because he is eligible for free agency after next season, and Angelos doesn't like to give big contracts to pitchers. (One reason why they have the majors' second-worst team ERA, by the way.)

As well, Oswalt wasn't on the table for long, and the Orioles move deliberately, a habit that has short-circuited other proposed deals.

By not wheeling and dealing, the Orioles are left to try to add winning players by free agency, growing their own or finding jewels among other teams' discards. It's not easy.

The free-agent route is especially tough because good players simply don't want to come to a losing team. I could cite chapter and verse again, but I'll spare you.

The answer is to overpay, which no one wants, but if the Orioles plan to start spending some of that MASN money this offseason, they'll surely have to overpay to land anyone decent. Angelos might as well start getting used to that.

As for growing their own talent, the Orioles were one of baseball's worst for years -- a deficiency established long before Angelos came along. They're faring better lately. Their system is deep in pitching, less so in position players. But as many prospects as they have, they still need a lot more. We'll see if they're up to the challenge.

Finding useful major leaguers on a discard pile is the toughest task, but Flanagan and Duquette found an everyday center fielder when they traded for Corey Patterson. Throw in their trade for starter Kris Benson and their solid signing of free-agent catcher Ramon Hernandez, and they deserve pretty high marks. They've earned the right to wheel and deal and let their vision crystallize, losing 2006 notwithstanding. But will they get the chance?

The Orioles are more promising than at any point in recent years; they're solid at every position except left field and first base, and though many of their young pitchers need time, they have potential.

But there's a difference between being "solid" at most positions and having the talent and consistency to challenge for the playoffs. The Orioles still have a long way to go.

Don't misunderstand -- having more money is bound to help. It enabled the Toronto Blue Jays to add quality players last winter, and while they haven't played as well as hoped, they're still over .500, where the Orioles would love to be.

But remember, the Orioles spent relatively heavily in the early years of the Angelos era, and other than in 1996 and 1997, they still didn't make the playoffs.

Having money to spend is one thing. Spending it wisely is another.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.