Orioles shop for bargains, not free-agency home run

The Kickoff

November 17, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

It would be easy to be cynical right now. The Orioles opened a pivotal offseason by acquiring a five-inning pitcher and a two-out reliever, which isn't likely to send disgruntled fans scurrying to get back on the team's season-ticket mailing list.

Jaret Wright is no impact starter and Jamie Walker is no bullpen savior, so it would be natural to wonder whether the front office is throwing deck chairs off the Titanic or actually embarking on a legitimate winter rebuilding program that could turn the Orioles into a competitive team in 2007.

My first instinct is to call the Law Offices of Peter Angelos and ask which mattress he filled up with all that MASN money he got from Major League Baseball, but each of these first two acquisitions gives a hint at what Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette hope to do over the next couple of months. They aren't flashy, big-dollar free agents, but they are serviceable players who fill a couple of the many holes in the Orioles' roster.

You and I might want the Orioles to spend $119 million to sign Alfonso Soriano, but last year's team was so short in so many areas that it's logical to try to attack those deficiencies with a broader approach that changes the greater makeup of the club rather than injecting one or two dynamic personalities into the equation to simply change the subject.

It may be logical, but it isn't very exciting.

Walker is a solid left-handed setup man who helped the Detroit Tigers reach the World Series this year and figures to help the Orioles renovate their bullpen, which has been established as Job One after last year's middle relief meltdown. If all goes according to plan, he is the first of three veteran middle guys the club hopes to acquire the next few months.

Wright is a back-of-the-rotation guy who deepens the pitching staff and could turn out to be a steal if he can pick up where he left off at the end of last season in New York (7-2 down the stretch for the Yankees). The Orioles are expected to continue their quest for a quality starter to put at or near the front of the rotation, but don't appear to be a serious player for any of the top pitchers in the free-agent market.

The same goes for Soriano and the top offensive stars that became available this week. The Orioles are expected to make a run at slugger Carlos Lee, who would fit nicely behind Miguel Tejada at the heart of the lineup, but they aren't expected to win the bidding for him, which could reach $90 million over six years. Angelos has made noises about stepping up to a $100-million-plus payroll, but I think we can all agree to believe that when we see it.

In short, this is not going to be a Toronto Blue Jays kind of winter, even though that team's offseason spending spree last year boosted it into second place ahead of the Boston Red Sox.

The Orioles' front office appears to be taking a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach, hoping to fill a long list of needs with reasonably priced players. That makes sense as long as the right players are available and club officials continue to pursue an impact trade, because Orioles fans cannot be expected to come back again next season with little hope of a significantly different outcome than they have witnessed each of the past nine years.

Expectations have diminished to the point where some fans would probably settle for a .500 finish in 2007, but the Orioles are going to be hard-pressed to stem their hemorrhaging attendance without delivering some star power along with a broader array of productive players. That remains problematic, both because of the internal resistance to the kind of contract necessary to lure a premier free agent and because of the reluctance of quality players to invest their futures in a franchise that has been in decline for nearly a decade.

The Orioles haven't given up on signing Lee, but it's obvious they are focused more on doing the things they can do than the things they wish they could do.

In other words, they are on a path that might lead toward respectability, but not much further than that.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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