Events in Florida don't warm O's fans

ON BASEBALL

December 08, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.-- --While exhausted in their hotel suite at the end of yesterday's winter meetings, Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan and vice president Jim Duquette shared a previously withheld nugget with the local media.

The Orioles had jumped in late on the sweepstakes for ballyhooed pitcher Jason Schmidt, a starter they originally thought would be out of their price range, and offered the right-hander a three-year deal worth about $48 million. He eventually decided to stay on the West Coast and accepted the Los Angeles Dodgers' three-year, $47 million proposal.

Flanagan and Duquette told the story to illustrate that quality players are interested in coming to Camden Yards and that ownership will pay big bucks for the right person. It was supposed to be a ray of hope in an otherwise yawner of a week.

Yet the message that shone through was this: Here we go again.

Forget about putting "Baltimore" on the road jerseys, how about stitching on "Bridesmaids" instead? OK, so the Orioles were close to getting Schmidt, but he's now a Dodger. So is Luis Gonzalez, who became the Orioles' Plan B after losing out on Carlos Lee, who left the Orioles at the altar and eloped to Houston. To its credit, the club signed four relievers to bolster a terrible bullpen, but the guy they wanted most, Justin Speier, also labeled them a finalist and then went elsewhere.

It's not for a lack of effort from the front office. Baltimore is a tough sell because of nine consecutive losing seasons and a reputation as a den of dysfunction. So instead of overpaying for mediocre talent, the Orioles smartly seem to be focusing on trades - but that hasn't gone smoothly either.

Several club officials thought they had a deal done with Atlanta, that would have packaged Brian Roberts and Hayden Penn for Marcus Giles and Adam LaRoche. But owner Peter Angelos scrapped that one. They also thought they had acquired right-handed-hitting outfielder Marcus Thames from Detroit in a three-way deal on two straight nights. First, it was with Washington, but the Nationals reportedly pulled out. Then with Houston, but the Astros stepped away.

The Orioles' contingent left here yesterday nearly empty-handed, acquiring only a utility player from the worst club in the National League, and a reserve catcher from the penultimate club in the American League. Not exactly headline grabbers.

Amazingly, the Orioles' offense might be worse off now than it was a week ago since potential power source Josh Phelps was left off the 40-man roster and was selected yesterday by the New York Yankees in the Rule 5 draft. One National League East scout actually laughed aloud at the Orioles' decision after the move was announced.

If not an unmitigated failure, it sure looks like the Orioles' week at the Most Magical Place on Earth was a certifiable bummer.

But not if you listen to the club brass tell it. Flanagan said he was "very surprised by how much positive feedback" they've received by improving the bullpen. And both stressed that the winter is not over. That they had "valuable discussions" with teams and agents that should lead to bettering this roster soon.

We've heard that canned optimism before - approximately every winter this decade. And nothing has changed.

In the past few offseasons, the Orioles were supposedly in the running to acquire Paul Konerko, Carlos Delgado, Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and a host of others. Each player had his own set of hurdles, but the common denominator was the same: The Orioles eventually lost out.

"We feel like some of those were longer shots than others. It'd be safe to say in some of those scenarios that maybe we shouldn't have gone down the path," Flanagan said. "But at the same time I think we tried to go after the better players. ... I don't think it will stop us from continuing" to do that.

Each time the Orioles fail, though, it strengthens the perception that baseball's elite - with the exception of Miguel Tejada and Ramon Hernandez, who both inexplicably had a limited number of suitors - won't come here. Years after the late Syd Thrift said it, it appears the Orioles are still using "Confederate money."

"I feel better about it this year than I did last year," Duquette said. "It's not one of those things I think you can change overnight, but I think we've done a pretty good job of chipping away at it. It doesn't seem like in terms of dialogues we have had with the agents that this is a place players don't want to be."

Keep plugging, and their fate will change, Duquette said.

"We're going to hit on one of them, two of them eventually," he said. "But you've got to be in the game to get them."

Undoubtedly, Flanagan, Duquette and their assistants were tireless this week. And perhaps there will be dividends - though probably nothing more than Thames and maybe free agent Jay Payton, players one industry executive described as "fourth outfielders on a good club."

Call it settling - or call it the reality of being the Orioles.

With the offseason half over, this club has an improved bullpen, an offense with gaping holes and the same old reputation for not moving forward.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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