Celebrate signings by closing checkbook

ON BASEBALL

November 29, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY

It's still November and the Orioles already have bought four relievers for more than the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' projected budget.

While other clubs haggled over everyday players and starting pitchers, the Orioles quickly signed Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson.

It's simple, albeit expensive, logic: They don't want another haphazard collection of rookies and never-weres backing up a group of young starters. Argue the specifics, but at least the Orioles showed moxie by identifying a weakness and aggressively attacking it. There is a victory in there somewhere.

If executive vice president Mike Flanagan and vice president Jim Duquette want to maintain a successful offseason, though, they now need to keep the checkbook hidden for a year. Don't impulse-buy at next week's winter meetings. Don't sign another free agent to a multi-year deal because no one left is a difference-maker for this club.

Instead, look for options the harder, cheaper, better way. Trades. Waivers. The Rule 5 draft. One-year deals. Whatever it takes without spending real money or clogging the roster.

Basically, the Orioles must abandon the dream that they are the Detroit Tigers 2.0 and everything will miraculously mesh in 2007. They must acknowledge that this team is headed for fourth place again and there are no big league-ready reinforcements in the minor leagues. Then they need to spend the next 10 months identifying, acquiring and developing a few players who will be under the club's financial control for several years and who can complement the existing core of players signed through 2009.

The Orioles can't repeat the sins of the past, when they thought they were a couple of players away, became desperate when they lost their top choices and stuffed their roster with overpaid, second-tier free agents.

You think Houston's payout of $100 million over six years for Carlos Lee is a waste of money? Consider that, in the past six years, the Orioles spent roughly $100 million total on free-agent busts David Segui, Marty Cordova, Omar Daal, Rafael Palmeiro, Sidney Ponson, Javy Lopez and Steve Kline.

Each year, the Orioles seemingly arrive at this point, and then proceed to steer their ship into the iceberg once Plan A melts. Alfonso Soriano and Lee, their top target, were too pricey. Starters Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt are still available, but the word within baseball circles is that neither has the slightest interest in coming to Baltimore. No matter the money, no matter the years.

What's left is a bucketful of Plan B's and C's on Desperation Aisle, where the Orioles end up using their rich uncle's credit card every year. Free agents such as Jay Payton, Aubrey Huff and Trot Nixon likely will get multi-year deals worth plenty of cash this offseason. The Orioles shouldn't be joining those parties.

And Flanagan said they won't. Looking at the remaining free-agent class, Flanagan said he wouldn't offer anyone a guaranteed contract of three or more years. That's just not part of the current plan, he said.

The truth is that for the Orioles to replicate the success of this year's Tigers, they probably need to strip down the organization to its skivvies and start again. Trade off anyone over 30 and rebuild for 2010, when most of the organization's best prospects could be ready to emerge.

But that would mean at least three more seasons of guaranteed ineptitude, and no one likes that notion. Not the mid-70s owner, who, despite the public perception, yearns for a winner. Not Flanagan, Duquette or manager Sam Perlozzo, none of whom has a contract beyond 2008. And certainly not the beaten-down fans staying away from Camden Yards in record numbers because no sustained hope remains there.

Despite being the proper method, a full-fledged rebuilding effort won't happen here. So the next best alternative is to change philosophy - and be realistic.

Stop telling fans this team will threaten the New York Yankees. It just fuels the anger when looking at the August standings.

Also, assure Perlozzo that he is here for two more seasons, so he doesn't have to worry about his record. Let him ease up on the pedal and stop managing every night like it's the World Series. That might allow him to do what he does best: listen and teach.

Give Jay Gibbons a spring and a full season to prove he can play an adequate first base and stay healthy. Use Corey Patterson in center every day for three more months and then decide to extend or deal him in July. Let Daniel Cabrera, Adam Loewen and Hayden Penn pitch and fail and succeed and pitch some more.

Trade Rodrigo Lopez and either Kris Benson or Jaret Wright for promising bats that aren't near free agency and are buried on depth charts.

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