Five Orioles storylines to watch at baseball's winter meetings

Roles of MacPhail and Showalter, possible trades and potential free-agent signings are among key themes

December 04, 2010|By Dan Connolly and Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

When the Orioles' front office hunkers down in earnest Monday for several days of discussions, negotiations and deliberations at the annual winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., there will be a decidedly different vibe.

For the first time since 2002, the Orioles will have a veteran manager shaking the hands of any players or players' agents who come into the club's suite.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Orioles can talk about their strong finish to the previous season and point to a young core of talented players as part of their sales pitch.

And, perhaps more so than in recent memory, there could be a sense of urgency swirling around the Orioles' suite this year, with 13 years of losing as a backdrop and a president of baseball operations in the final year of his contract.

That urgency has only grown the past couple of weeks as the Orioles have missed out on two of their top free-agent targets — catcher-first baseman Victor Martinez and designated hitter-first baseman Adam Dunn.

"I don't think discouraged is the right word," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "I don't think there's anything that has been too terribly surprising. The market appears to be up for what it has been in years past. We're still in the hunt to try to augment our offense and then fill in other places after."

Here are some storylines to watch as the meetings, which run through Thursday, progress:

Does MacPhail need to make a splash?

This will be the fourth winter meetings for MacPhail, who is the final year of his contract. In the past, the low-key executive has used the winter meetings to set up groundwork for trades and free-agent signings, consummating deals at later dates (although he did trade for Kevin Millwood at last year's meetings).

Conventional wisdom dictates that this year's meetings will be more of the same. But there are two big differences: Free agency started 10 days earlier this offseason and some big names (Martinez, Dunn) are already off the board, so the timeline for all teams might be accelerated.

And, perhaps more important, an already disgruntled fan base is becoming further disenchanted with the continual losing, and MacPhail's cautious approach has been targeted as a primary cause.

So there is definitely more pressure on MacPhail to improve the roster than ever before in Baltimore. That said, MacPhail, in the past, has been impervious to the criticism and unyielding to artificial deadlines. So it would be surprising to see him make a knee-jerk move in Florida when he still has two-plus months remaining this offseason.

How much of a factor will Buck Showalter be this week?

The best guess is that Showalter will play a huge role at the winter meetings. First, he is one of the Orioles' biggest selling points, especially after a woeful club went 34-23 under the veteran manager in the final two months of the season.

Showalter knows everyone in the game and has the respect of most. So he'll definitely be active. Furthermore, Showalter hasn't pulled punches in his belief that this team needs to get better and get better quickly. And he'll continually share his unending supply of ideas with MacPhail and company — and that includes owner Peter Angelos, who does not attend the meetings but is kept in the loop.

Showalter has met face-to-face several times with Angelos already this offseason — something unheard of with past managers. So it's fair to say he has more clout with the owner than all his recent predecessors combined.

Do the Orioles still have 'Confederate money?'

With only two players, second baseman Brian Roberts and right fielder Nick Markakis, signed long term, the Orioles theoretically have money to spend this offseason.

They have tried — and haven't found a taker.

They made a four-year, $48 million offer to Martinez, the Orioles' top free-agent target, and watched the switch-hitter sign with the Detroit Tigers for four years and $50 million.

MacPhail extended a four-year, $40 million offer to Dunn and was blown out of the water by the Chicago White Sox's winning four-year, $56 million bid.

The two misses have only strengthened the perception that the Orioles, in the midst of 13 consecutive losing seasons, will have to dramatically outbid other suitors to land any free agent of significance. The problem there is MacPhail has yet to show a willingness to do that.

Which free agents are on their radar?

You know the names by now. In their search to find a regular first baseman and a middle-of-the-order hitter, the Orioles are considering Paul Konerko, Adam LaRoche, Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena.

They have been active with the free-agent relief market as Jesse Crain, Kevin Gregg and Grant Balfour are among the pitchers whom the club is considering. The Orioles have extended at least one offer to a reliever, according to a source, and have talked contract parameters with several others.

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