Rotation leaves Orioles spinning

On eve of winter meetings, team looks to upgrade starters

December 07, 2008|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Nothing exemplifies the Orioles' dire starting pitching situation more than a breakdown of their 40-man roster, which includes 28 pitchers, yet only one who is penciled into next year's rotation. The inventory behind staff ace Jeremy Guthrie is there; it's just flawed and damaged.

Daniel Cabrera is a candidate to be nontendered, and Brian Burres and Brian Bass are viewed more as long relievers. Chris Waters, Hayden Penn, Garrett Olson and Radhames Liz have mostly looked overmatched in their big league stints, while Troy Patton, Danys Baez and Matt Albers are trying to rebound from serious injuries.

As the Orioles' top executives head to Las Vegas for tomorrow's start of baseball's annual winter meetings, their challenge is clear. They need to find some way to upgrade a rotation that has been one of baseball's worst for several seasons.

"Pitching markets are always tough because the supply never comes close to meeting demand," Orioles president Andy MacPhail said. "It seems like it gets to be more and more that way. Starting pitching is probably the hardest commodity to have."

This year's free-agent class isn't overflowing with options for the Orioles, whose top pitching target appears to be moving further and further from their grasp. A.J. Burnett, who lives in Monkton and wants to pitch close to home, is being wooed by a handful of teams as an alternative to top free agents CC Sabathia and Derek Lowe.

MacPhail met last month with Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, and he'll likely touch base with him this week. However, the Orioles are not expected to come close to matching the Atlanta Braves' reported offer, a four-year pact worth $60 million with an option for a fifth season.

Fearful of Burnett's injury history, the Orioles are even hesitant to offer him a guaranteed four years, likely leaving them to pore through other options. They have expressed interest in Paul Byrd, Jon Garland, Mark Hendrickson, Braden Looper and Randy Wolf. They have meetings scheduled with the agents for Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara, and appear to be in decent position to land at least one of the Japanese starters.

And the Orioles, who traditionally have avoided taking chances on pitchers who are health risks, are even considering players such as Bartolo Colon and Matt Clement.

"We're looking at everything," MacPhail said. "We're going to do everything we can to augment our pitching. There's no question it will be difficult. It always is."

The Orioles had trade discussions with the Florida Marlins about Scott Olsen, who was sent to the Washington Nationals. They also had some interest in Javier Vazquez, whom the Chicago White Sox traded to the Braves.

"We've made it clear that solidifying our rotation is a priority," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "The groundwork has been laid. We're going to see what we can do."

Other winter meeting story lines for the Orioles:

* MacPhail expects to be asked often about Brian Roberts, whose name in trade talks has become a staple of these meetings. This year should be no different as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox and Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals are all seeking upgrades at second base.

MacPhail has told other GMs that the Orioles are trying to sign Roberts, who is eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, to an extension rather than trading him. MacPhail and Mark Pieper, Roberts' agent, are expected to meet this week. "Our goal is to extend him," MacPhail said.

* The Orioles want to deal Ramon Hernandez, but that might be a difficult task with the catcher being owed $8 million for next season. Two possible fits are the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds, though the Orioles would have to absorb a good chunk of Hernandez's salary to unload him. The Detroit Tigers, also looking for a catcher, don't appear to be an option as they are listed in Hernandez's limited no-trade clause.

* The shortstop market thinned some last week with the San Francisco Giants' addition of Edgar Renteria and the San Diego Padres' trade of Khalil Greene to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pittsburgh Pirates' Jack Wilson also could be on the move this week.

Still, the Orioles, who don't have a shortstop on their 40-man roster, don't appear to be in any rush to find one. They've had no recent discussions with the representative for free agent Cesar Izturis, seemingly their top choice, and they aren't that interested in injury-prone Bobby Crosby, who has been shopped to them by the Oakland Athletics.

Adam Everett is an option as the Orioles have expressed interest to his agent.

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