Even though they have directed one of the busiest teams in the league since the money-spending free-agent season began, the Orioles' top executives boarded a plane in Baltimore yesterday en route to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., with a lot of questions still to answer.
They will get the opportunity over the next four days at baseball's winter meetings, the annual gathering of baseball minds that often marks the big expenditure portion of the offseason.
However, many of the top free agents already have taken advantage of baseball's healthy economic climate and chosen their teams for 2007 and beyond, leaving most baseball pundits to predict that the meetings could morph into a trade frenzy.
Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan and vice president Jim Duquette have re-signed their first baseman last year, reached agreement with a backup catcher, acquired a starting pitcher in a trade and added four relievers.
They have been criticized for spending $43 million to revamp their bullpen, though no matter how much they might have overspent, it's hard to dispute that they've turned a weakness into a strength. Still, the Orioles have a gaping hole in left field and in the middle of their lineup. They would like to add another right-handed bat, and they are of the mind-set that they can never have enough pitching.
"We expect to be very busy at the winter meetings," Flanagan said last week.
Here are some questions the Orioles will face:
Can the Orioles get to the podium?
There is a podium in the front of the media workroom at the winter meetings for teams to make significant announcements, such as a trade or a free-agent signing. For the most part, it might as well not exist for the Orioles, whose last trip there came when they signed Miguel Tejada in 2003.
Club executives have worked hard this offseason to bury the notion that the Orioles have a paralyzed and indecisive front office. They hope to continue their overhaul of the roster this week by adding a few more players. A trip to the podium hinges on it.
Which free agents will get the Orioles' attention?
With sluggers Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee long off the board, Luis Gonzalez and Cliff Floyd are left standing atop the Orioles' free-agent outfield wish list.
The Orioles have made a one-year offer to Gonzalez, 39, who has 331 career home runs, but hit just 15 last season for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Gonzalez reportedly would prefer staying out west, seemingly making the Orioles a long shot. Floyd, who turns 34 tomorrow and had offseason surgery to repair his Achilles' tendon and his ankle, has said he'd like to play for the Chicago Cubs.
If the Orioles are unable to land either one, they'll have to make a trade to fill their left-field vacancy or turn their attention to a group of questionable free agents that includes Trot Nixon, Ryan Klesko, Jay Payton and Aubrey Huff.
Is a trade likely this week?
A major deal probably won't happen unless the Orioles suddenly change their stance and move Tejada or one of their young pitchers. What definitely could happen is for the Orioles to call on their pitching depth and trade a starter or a reliever for a hitter.
Rodrigo Lopez, the Opening Day starter three of the past four years, is the most likely to be dealt, and five teams have expressed interest in the right-hander, according to an industry source.
The Orioles would not hesitate to deal pitchers Kris Benson or Jaret Wright to fill a need and have talked to several teams about Hayden Penn, one of the Orioles' top pitching prospects.
Which big hitter could be available in a trade?
There just isn't much out there, though club officials are hopeful that will change as the free-agent pitching market continues to thin out, leaving left-out teams more likely to deal hitting for pitching.
The Orioles have had discussions with the Cincinnati Reds about Adam Dunn and with the Seattle Mariners about Richie Sexson, but other clubs' insistence on making Erik Bedard part of the deals essentially ended the talks. The Orioles also have coveted Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell, though they continue to hear that he wouldn't drop his no-trade clause.
The Orioles discussed swapping Lopez for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Kevin Mench earlier this offseason, but the deal is no longer on the table, according to a source familiar with the talks. There also have been talks with the Cubs about left-handed-hitting outfielder Jacque Jones, but no deal appears imminent as the Cubs are also looking at the Orioles' young pitching.
Kansas City Royals outfielder Emil Brown, Detroit Tigers first baseman Chris Shelton and Seattle first baseman Ben Broussard are cheaper trade options.
Will a team make a run at Tejada?
On the last day of the 2005 winter meetings, Tejada shocked club officials when he suggested he'd benefit from a change of scenery. The proclamation prompted the front office to entertain offers for the star player and nearly resulted in a waiver deadline deal.
There has been little buzz about Tejada this offseason. Perhaps teams are resigned to the fact that the Orioles will not lower their original asking price of three players, one being a front-line pitcher.
The $43 million the Orioles are paying to middle relievers is more proof that the club is not interested in rebuilding, a process that almost certainly would result in Tejada's wearing a different uniform. However, as long as the Los Angeles Angels are seeking a big bat and have an arsenal of young pitchers to get one, it's impossible to completely rule out a trade.