Free agents will get hard look

Burnett, Teixeira on MacPhail's list as O's seek pitching, power hitting and shortstop

Orioles

November 14, 2008|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Today officially marks the beginning of the all-out, spend-it-if-you-got-it sweepstakes for Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Manny Ramirez and major league baseball's other top free agents.

This class of more than 180 players is one of the most talented and top-heavy groups in the past decade. Records in terms of average annual value and total money spent could be set this winter, though the market must overcome a downturn in the U.S. economy that could leave lesser-tier free agents desperate.

That effect could work in the Orioles' favor, because they, theoretically, have money to spend but are not an intriguing landing spot because of their 11 consecutive losing seasons in the difficult American League East.

Although concentrated on a rebuilding plan that began in earnest last offseason, Orioles president Andy MacPhail acknowledges that he'll be kicking the tires of some available superstars over the next few days and weeks.

However, the club's spending spree is likely to be modest unless MacPhail reels in his two big-ticket targets: Teixeira, the Los Angeles Angels first baseman who grew up in Severna Park, and Toronto pitcher A.J. Burnett, who lives in Monkton. The unspoken hope is that the allure of home will offset the club's recent losing ways.

"I think there are some unique opportunities here that require our exploration, and we owe that to our fans and to ourselves," said MacPhail, refusing to address specifics. "If we are unsuccessful, we'll still look in the market. But we're not expecting it to be a panacea for us. We need to continue what we started last year."

The Orioles' primary needs for 2009 and beyond are in the starting rotation, at shortstop and in the middle of the lineup. The club would like to add more than one veteran starting pitcher, a shortstop with above-average defensive abilities and a run producer, preferably at first base.

Sabathia, who finished 2008 with the Milwaukee Brewers, is the most coveted starter this offseason and almost certainly would not consider the Orioles. Beyond their interest in Burnett, who won a career-best 18 games with the Toronto Blue Jays last year, the Orioles might pursue the Boston Red Sox's Paul Byrd and the Angels' Jon Garland, among others.

Desperately needing a shortstop since the December trade of Miguel Tejada, the Orioles could target free agents Rafael Furcal, Orlando Cabrera or Edgar Renteria. Or they might court less expensive alternatives such as the St. Louis Cardinals' Cesar Izturis or Minnesota Twins' Adam Everett, or acquire a shortstop via trade. Whatever the process, the Orioles are looking for a long-term solution and not a one-year stopgap.

"I think it's a spot that you would like to feel you have somebody there capable of playing it for several years to come," MacPhail said.

Teixeira, a Mount St. Joseph graduate who is widely considered the best free-agent position player available, is the Orioles' primary target. They are not alone.

Teixeira's agent, Scott Boras, said he expects so much interest in his client that Teixeira and his wife probably will have to whittle the list to a handful of clubs before serious negotiations can begin.

Boras wouldn't comment on whether he expects the Orioles to be in that mix, but he did not discount the appeal that a hometown team holds.

"Generally, players raised in a certain area are always going to have an attraction to that area and the brand of that area because it is home and they are familiar with it," Boras said. "It's my experience [that] players always look at those areas because it provides a comfort to them."

But the Orioles shouldn't expect any hometown discounts. Teixeira reportedly turned down an eight-year, $144 million offer from the Texas Rangers in 2007, and he has continued to play at an All-Star and Gold Glove level since.

It's conceivable, albeit unlikely, that Teixeira could challenge the Boras-brokered, then-record-setting $252 million deal that Alex Rodriguez signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2000 with the Rangers. Teixeira, 28, probably will seek an annual average value of $20 million-plus for eight or more years.

Although that's an eye-popping number in a sagging U.S. economy, Boras said baseball's revenue stream has more than doubled in the past seven years and teams that want a franchise player can afford such an expense. Therefore, he's not basing his expectations on anything but the baseball market.

"In good times, I never expected players to make more than the economy" allowed, he said. "And in these times, I don't go in and ask for less either."

FREE-AGENT ATTRACTIONS

The free-agent signing period begins today, and it is expected that the Orioles will be active in the bidding. Here's a look at some of the free agents who could interest them and the players' 2008 statistics.

Emil Brown OF .244, 13 HRs, 59 RBIs Orioles are in the market for a right-handed-hitting outfielder to potentially platoon with Luke Scott.

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