Orioles could make big splash
With bullpen fortified, Baltimore turns its attention to offense
BALTIMORE -- Forgive the Orioles if they take a single-minded approach at the Winter Meetings. Baltimore has spent the early part of the offseason patching its most problematic area, the bullpen, which leaves just one spot to target.
The Orioles are looking for a power bat, a commodity that could have a huge ripple effect throughout the lineup. The team's top two free-agent choices -- Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano -- are off the market, which could make a trade more likely. Either way, the Winter Meetings may not provide headlines, because most of the team's work is already done.
"The first priority has been the bullpen, and we feel like we're addressing that," said Baltimore executive vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan. "We wanted a starting pitcher [too], and we've done that with Jaret Wright. Now we're going to continue to look for offense -- either through trade or the free-agent market.
"We'll try to look at different avenues and see what makes sense."
The Orioles have discussed terms with free-agent starters like Gil Meche and Ted Lilly, but they aren't expected to land another high-priced starter. Baltimore, in fact, may wind up talking to teams more than players. The trade market may be pretty active this winter, thanks to the escalating prices of most free agents.
"We're still in conversations, but I can't say we're anywhere near the favorites for Meche and Lilly," Flanagan said. "When the market starts to get up there, I think you start looking at your own players to see how valuable they are to you. We expect to get hit hard on a lot of our pitching. We think we have some depth in our starting rotation."
"It's a lot higher [than we expected]," said vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette, speaking about the open market. "Historically, every year there's been a collective bargaining agreement, the market goes up roughly 10-15 percent. In our estimations, we factored that into the equation. ... It's a subjective thing."
Duquette said he expected Lee to command a salary close to Paul Konerko's deal from last winter, but Lee's final deal wound up being substantially bigger. The same process repeated itself with Soriano. Duquette said the five-time All-Star commanded a contract that was more than $50 million higher than the Orioles expected.
Once those two left the market, Baltimore set about fixing its other weaknesses. The Orioles have already signed four relievers -- Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Scott Williamson and Chad Bradford -- and have spent more than $40 million in the process. Now, they get to take a step back and figure out the easiest way to improve their roster.
"We're doing a lot more due diligence," said Duquette. "It's not like this was a major surprise for us. We wanted to be in on Soriano and Lee, but we also had to plan for the [likelihood] that we wouldn't get them. We've done a lot of the homework, and we're still doing that with some of these guys. This is where we have to be very cautious."
"There are some guys who signed last year that signed multi-year contracts in the same situation, and now a year later, they're back on the trade market because they're viewed as a bad signing. We don't want to be in that situation."
Now, the entire winter rests on one job. With the bullpen repaired and the rotation seemingly intact, left field is the last remaining obstacle in the recasting of a team that has had nine straight losing seasons. If the outfield is fixed as easily as the bullpen, Baltimore may have plenty to look forward to -- both in 2007 and beyond.
"We certainly like our rotation. And judging by our talks with a lot of other clubs, a lot of people value our rotation," Flanagan said. "If we strengthen the bullpen, we can keep the score down. This club, though we do want to add offense to it, scored the same amount of runs as the [World Series champion St. Louis] Cardinals.
"The big difference was we gave up 899 runs last year. If we can take runs off the board, we think it will help our starting pitching and the offense."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.