Shallow market makes deep impact tough

November 12, 2006|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN REPORTER

Orioles vice president Jim Duquette still has the lists of select members of the 2005 free-agent class taped to his otherwise barren office walls. Some of the names on the lists are crossed out, the result of a player on the club's radar eschewing the Orioles' interest and signing elsewhere.

The most extensive list was reserved for pitchers, while the others documented the team's outfield and first base options. If nothing else, the lists remind Duquette of the front office's daily juggling act last offseason to fill a plethora of holes with a thin free-agent class and precious few trade chips at the Orioles' disposal.

One year later, few of the variables have changed, and the challenges for the front office are nearly as daunting. The 2006 free-agent class, which can field offers from other teams starting today, is not deep, and the price tags on its best members continue to soar. The Orioles are intent on building around their highly valued young pitching and star shortstop Miguel Tejada, not trading them. And more than a month removed from a ninth consecutive losing season, the Orioles still have holes, though they seemingly are not as gaping as at this time last season.

"What you don't want to happen is what we feel like happened to us last year," Duquette said. "We had so many holes to fill and we only filled so many. At the end, we were sitting there picking out the best of what was left. That's how we almost made a mistake with [Jeromy] Burnitz. You end up having to overpay for guys that have an iffy track record.

"I hope we can go out and be aggressive in the areas of the market that will allow us to be aggressive. If there is a willingness to sign early, whether it is a reliever, a starting pitcher or a position player, we feel like we are going to try to do that."

Starting today, the Orioles, often maligned for not being aggressive or decisive enough at this time of year, say that they will accelerate their pursuit of a starting pitcher, a left fielder, a first baseman, a backup catcher and several relievers. None is a priority over the others, Duquette and executive vice president Mike Flanagan maintain.

"I think we are going to focus more initially on the bullpen, but I don't know if we have worked out [priority] one, two, three or four," Flanagan said. "We are just worried about getting better. We need to get better."

Seeking starter

Sharing the opinion of most baseball executives, Flanagan described the current free-agent conditions as "a lot of demand right now and not a great supply," a scenario that could lead to a trade-heavy offseason. Duquette predicted that the trend could start as early as tomorrow, when executives from all 30 teams descend on Naples, Fla., for the start of baseball's general manager meetings.

Still, there are plenty of free agents available who interest the Orioles. In their quest to upgrade the bullpen in front of closer Chris Ray, the Orioles haven't ruled out many relievers, but right-handers Justin Speier (Toronto Blue Jays), Chad Bradford (New York Mets) and Joe Borowski (Florida Marlins) and left-handers Jamie Walker (Detroit Tigers), Scott Schoeneweis (Cincinnati Reds) and Alan Embree (San Diego Padres) are among their top targets.

Though the acquisition of Jaret Wright gives the Orioles six starters along with Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, Adam Loewen, Kris Benson and Rodrigo Lopez, the Orioles will likely trade Lopez (the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers have inquired) or use him in the bullpen.

There is still a good chance that they will sign another pitcher, though it won't be one of the top three free-agent arms - Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jason Schmidt or Barry Zito. The Orioles did not bid on Matsuzaka, the 26-year-old Japanese phenom, and likely won't aggressively pursue Schmidt or Zito. Schmidt's injury problems are a concern, and the Orioles have heard from enough people that Zito is not interested in playing in Baltimore.

That leaves Blue Jays left-hander Ted Lilly and Seattle Mariners right-hander Gil Meche atop the Orioles' pitching wish list. Both are coming off good seasons - Lilly was 15-13, Meche was 11-8 - and will be looking at anywhere from $8 million to $10 million per year. Mark Mulder, Adam Eaton and Randy Wolf, three pitchers who are coming off injuries, also will be considered.

Most team officials agree that the biggest challenge this offseason will be finding middle-of-the-lineup hitter, just because there are so few available and the ones who are will get a ton of offers.

One industry source felt that the Orioles' best chance of landing an impact hitter resided with disgruntled New York Yankees outfielder-first baseman Gary Sheffield. Sheffield has a good relationship with Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, who managed Sheffield's uncle, Dwight Gooden, in the minors, and apparently had made it known to others that he was willing to play for the Orioles.

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