O's hot stove just lukewarm

January 13, 2008|By DAN CONNOLLY

Five weeks before spring training opens in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Orioles aren't exactly ready for battle.

They don't have a definite starting center fielder or shortstop, a closer or an innings-eating veteran starter.

Lone All-Star Brian Roberts and ace Erik Bedard are still dangling on an Inner Harbor pier as club president Andy MacPhail decides whether to fish or cut bait in the trade market.

No one - not even MacPhail - knows exactly what this team will look like when pitchers and catchers start tossing around the baseball Feb. 14.

Given the recent past of this organization, maybe that's a good thing. In January, anyway, ambiguity trumps completed mediocrity.

MacPhail deserves credit for not knee-jerking in his rebuilding effort and trading for the sake of trading. Or for signing inadequate quick fixes to multiyear deals, only to regret it come, say, April 1.

But that doesn't make this uncertainty for 2008 and beyond any easier to stomach.

Will fan favorite and community leader Roberts be dealt to the Chicago Cubs? Will Bedard take his sarcastic sneer and blessed left arm to Seattle? Will the Orioles keep both players, and decide to play seven in the field because they don't have enough legitimate big leaguers to fill out a diamond?

With spring training looming, the 69-win Orioles have traded their most heralded player, shortstop Miguel Tejada, for five youngsters while signing an obscure backup catcher and a Rule 5 reliever.

That's it.

Not exactly the refreshing overhaul expected when MacPhail rode into town in June. He has preached patience and a carefully orchestrated plan for improvement. That requires a leap of faith, however, because past administrations seemingly didn't have the roadmap back to respectability. Or the car. Or the road.

This much we know: MacPhail has been around baseball for a long time. He has earned respect within the game, including that of Orioles owner Peter Angelos. And MacPhail has said repeatedly that he has Angelos' blessing to do whatever it takes to make this team relevant again.

We also know this: No conspiracy theories are needed to explain why other major trades haven't been made. There were no last-minute snags, and Angelos hasn't shot down any deals.

Simply put: MacPhail knows what he wants to acquire for Bedard or Roberts, he hasn't received it, and he's not bending in his demands.

Although he doesn't show his hand, it's believed MacPhail expects three to five legitimate prospects or near major league-ready players for either of his two big guns.

In Seattle, that means center fielder Adam Jones and probably at least three others, likely including 19-year-old right-hander Chris Tillman. With the Cubs, that probably means outfielders Felix Pie or Tyler Colvin, pitchers Sean Marshall or Sean Gallagher and one or two others. In Cincinnati, a Bedard trade meant promising outfielder Jay Bruce and others, and because the Reds wouldn't include Bruce, those talks withered.

Fans in those cities will tell you the Orioles are asking for too much. But Orioles front office people will argue that none of the players they are targeting is a key component of the other clubs' potential 2008 playoff run.

It's a simple equation that MacPhail is proposing in the trade talks: We'll make your good team a true contender this season, and you'll make us better for 2010.

That means - though MacPhail won't say it - that 2008 is a lost season in Baltimore. It's a conclusion without much of a jump.

The team's current starting shortstop is Luis Hernandez, a 23-year-old defensive specialist who has 69 major league at-bats and a lifetime on-base percentage of .299 in six minor league seasons. And he is the least of the mysteries facing the Orioles.

Center field is a battle between journeyman Jay Payton and Tike Redman, who started last season in independent ball. The projected starting rotation has only one season of 200 innings pitched on its resume, turned in by, gulp, Daniel Cabrera.

The only backup catcher on the roster, Guillermo Quiroz, has 100 total at-bats in four big league seasons. And it would be irresponsible journalism to speculate which one of the current relievers will be forced to close games.

The bottom line is that with five weeks left before spring training, the Orioles' immediate and long-term futures are in limbo.

There is time. And a plan should become clearer within the next days to weeks, when MacPhail sees whether his trade partners blink and give up what he wants.

If they don't, he'll add some stopgaps and head to sunny Florida with a shaky present and a future that remains cloudy.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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