- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The expectations are high for the Baltimore Orioles as they wade into the free agency pool. But so are the prices, at least for the luxury items.

Vladimir Guerrero is believed to be the primary target of the Beatagan front office, but he also is expected to be courted by the New York Yankees, which means he likely will be getting more than the $11million he earned last year — most likely in the $15million annual range for four or five years.

The question Orioles officials are asking themselves, though, according to a report in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, is not the issue of spending the money but the best way to spend it. Do you sign a player like Guerrero for $15million a year or go for two players on the lower level of free agency for $7million or $8million each?

The Sun reported the Orioles are reluctant to commit a huge contract to one player. If that is so, then maybe owner Peter Angelos finally has learned something after all.

The lesson? One that the Florida Marlins — a team that finished the season with just two players with contracts beyond this past year — taught all of baseball this past season. Payroll flexibility opens the door to success in today’s baseball market.

All you need to do is look at what is unfolding in baseball as the offseason wheeling and dealing begins. Teams with two of the biggest contracts in baseball — the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox — are both looking to trade their two superstars: Alex Rodriguez, with his $179million price tag still remaining in the final seven years of his 10-year contract, and Manny Ramirez with the $100million left in the final five years of his deal. Both teams are looking for flexibility, though Boston is much farther along in that process.

If you look at how the Red Sox built the team that took the Yankees to seven games in the American League Championship Series — and ignore all the Bill James-Billy Beane Moneyball philosophy and just examine the economics of it — their key acquisitions last winter were mid-level free agents with mid-level salaries and short-term deals, such as Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz.

This is not discovering plutonium, by the way. This is the way that Pat Gillick — the former Orioles general manager — built the Seattle Mariners into the winningest team in major league baseball over his four years (he left at the end of this season) as the Mariners’ general manager.

Gillick provided the blueprint for the alternative to the big contracts as he turned in four of perhaps the greatest years any general manager ever has put together in modern baseball. The Mariners never made it to the World Series during his tenure, but Seattle did reach the ALCS twice and won more games (393) than any other club in baseball. He managed to do this while losing three of the biggest stars in the game over that time: Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez. He replaced them through prospects and lesser heralded players he either obtained in trades or signed as mid-level free agents.

The only way this works, though, is if an organization has people in place who can judge the talent of those mid-level free agents. The Orioles were forced to attempt to take this route in the past few years because of their continuing efforts to rebuild — and also the fact that good ballplayers were reluctant to come to Baltimore because the organization was in shambles. They were using, as former club vice president Syd Thrift called it, “Confederate money.”

As a result, they made the mistake of overpaying the mid-level free agents they signed. They gave David Segui a four-year, $28million contract when, given his history of injuries, two years should have been the limit. They overpaid a journeyman catcher (three years, $10million to Brook Fordyce) and a stiff of an outfielder (three years, $10.5million to Marty Cordova).

Whether you are signing one player to a $75million contract or four players for that amount, you have to make intelligent judgments about talent — and even then, it’s a crapshoot.

There are many options available to the Orioles besides the obvious big contract to a superstar like Guerrero (who, based on the way he went about his business in Montreal, may not buy into new manager Lee Mazzilli’s power of positive thinking). How about Juan Gonzalez — this year’s Ivan Rodriguez, a superstar looking to repair his standing — in the lineup at Camden Yards for a one-year deal? There are a number of players expected to flood the market once players who are eligible for arbitration are not tendered contracts, and there should be all sorts of trade possibilities.

Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan talk a good game. The Orioles’ front office duo say all the right things and have, if nothing else, helped create the impression that the organization is moving in the right direction. Now it is time for them to put their money where their mouths are and see if they are as smart as they sound.

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