- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

It is difficult to find fault with the Baltimore Orioles signing Miguel Tejada — a player who is in his prime and has hit 122 home runs and driven in 465 runs in his past four seasons.

But let’s try.

Teams are trying to get rid of their players with long-term contracts these days. Alex Rodriguez is the best player in baseball, and Manny Ramirez is the best right-handed hitter in the game. Yet the teams that signed those players to their enormous deals, the Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox, are doing everything they can to get rid of each player — yes, by trading them to the other team, but they are still trying to get themselves out from under contracts that denied each of them payroll flexibility.

Now, Tejada’s $72million deal is not A-Rod’s $252million obscenity or Manny’s $160million albatross. But it is $12million a year for the next six years the Baltimore Orioles are committed to.

It does not follow the trend for success in baseball’s new financial era — payroll flexibility. Ideally, if you are going to commit that much money and that many years to a player, you would like it to be one of your own, a player the fans have grown to identify as part of the franchise. The more you commit and the longer you commit to a free agent coming in, the less money you have available down the road if a Luis Matos or Larry Bigbie turns into a big-time player and becomes a free agent.

But the Orioles, after six straight losing seasons and an attendance decline of a million fans a year, are desperate to bring fans back to Camden Yards. They had to do something, even if it wasn’t financially prudent. Tejada probably will deliver the goods, though. This is not an Albert Belle signing.

And the Orioles are not done. Reportedly, they are on the verge of signing either Ivan Rodriguez or Javy Lopez, and also expect to be able to land Vladimir Guerrero. That will put the fannies back in the seats, no question about it.

But does it make the Orioles any better than they were last year, or the year before, or the year before that? Even with the trio of superstars, are the Orioles any better than a fourth-place team in the American League East?

It is questionable that the Orioles will be able to make up enough ground to catch the Boston Red Sox, who added Curt Schilling to a rotation that includes Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, or the Yankees, who traded for Javier Vazquez and are still working to fill the void left by Andy Pettitte’s departure.

What may be most difficult to reconcile, though, is the question of whether the potentially stacked new-look Orioles even have enough to overtake the Toronto Blue Jays, a team that finished 15 games ahead of Baltimore last year.

The Blue Jays, who won 86 games last season, quietly helped themselves in the right places so far this winter by building up a strong pitching staff to go along with their powerful offense. They traded for Ted Lilly, the left-hander who was Oakland’s best pitcher in the playoffs last year; they signed Pat Hentgen, one of the best pitchers in the league in the second half of the season last year (6-3, 3.10 ERA with the losing Orioles), and Miguel Batista, who won 10 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks last year, to go along with Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. They strengthened their bullpen by signing Kerry Ligtenberg and trading for Justin Speier.

Toronto, led by Carlos Delgado (42 home runs, 145 RBI, .302 average) and Vernon Wells (33 home runs, 117 RBI, .317 average), scored 894 runs last year, more than the Yankees (and 151 more than the Orioles). They added pitching to that offense.

Baltimore needed to do both. Right now, a pitching staff with Jason Johnson, Rodrigo Lopez (who is looking more like Jose Mercedes with each start in the Mexican League), Omar Daal and Eric DuBose isn’t going to cut it. If the talk about bringing back Sidney Ponson is true, it won’t send shock waves through the division.

If the Orioles land the offensive trifecta and do not find a way to significantly upgrade their pitching, they stand a good chance of being the 2003 Texas Rangers — scoring 826 runs, with big bats like A-Rod (47 home runs, 118 RBI), Rafael Palmeiro (38 home runs, 112 RBI), Mark Teixeira (26 home runs, 90 RBI), Hank Blalock (29 home runs, 90 RBI) and Juan Gonzalez (24 home runs, 70 RBI).

That is an impressive lineup. They won 69 games and finished last in the American League West.

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