Free agents aren't the solution
By Christopher Heun
Now that the trade deadline has passed and Miguel Tejada is still in Baltimore, it appears that free agency is the most likely way the Birds will try to improve for 2007.
This is a mistake for many reasons. The biggest: the Orioles have a poor track record of attracting free agent talent and when they do manage to sign someone, more often than not it ends up backfiring. For every Ramon Hernandez there is a Javy Lopez and a Sidney Ponson; for every Tejada there’s an Albert Belle and a David Segui. Not to mention the Warehouse closet filled with the inimitable likes of Marty Cordova, Steve Kline, Mike DeJean or Jim Brower.
On top of that, I doubt the team’s chances with what has to be considered a weak selection of talent this off-season, especially when it comes to starting pitching. Does anyone really believe that one of the trio of aces on the market – Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt and Mark Mulder – will sign with a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1997?
Not everyone agrees with me. When I wrote that dealing Tejada for young pitchers was the best hope for the Birds, Josh of Since 1954 commented that writing out checks this winter could spark a return to winning ways. “If we increased spending by ~$20 million, so our payroll would be at ~$90 million, we'd be able to acquire enough tools to get over .500.”
Josh is not alone. The Sun’s Peter Schmuck has been drinking the free agent Kool-Aid in greedy gulps. In his Aug. 4 column, he espoused the oft-disproved theory – by the very same Orioles, circa Albert Belle no less! – that spending more money automatically means more wins.
I’ll let Schmuck speak for himself in italics. The normal typeface is my comments. For space reasons, I’ve skipped much of the beginning of his column, which was dedicated to the possibility that the gap separating the O’s from the top of the standings isn’t so wide after all.
The club has solid organizational pitching depth and an offensive attack that could be upgraded dramatically with one or two decent free-agent signings this winter. Throw in a No. 1 starter (Roy Oswalt still isn't out of the question) and maybe you won't be so quick to sell your tickets to the Yankees and Red Sox games next summer.
“One or two decent signings and a No. 1 starter” reminds me of what Texas Rangers manager Whitey Herzog had to say about his 1973 club: “We need just two players to be a contender. Just Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax.”
Manager Sam Perlozzo is paid to say the right things about the club, but I tend to believe him when he says the groundwork has been laid for a brighter future.
Remember this bit about groundwork. It comes up again later.
"I think one of the biggest things we did was sign some of the guys to multi-year contracts, so we have less holes to fill," he said. "We've cut our holes down to the point where we need one big guy. We could use two, but one major [offensive] guy would really make a difference."
The name that has been floating around lately is slugging left-fielder Carlos Lee, who was traded from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Texas Rangers, but has not signed a long-term contract. He is expected to be one of the plums of the free-agent market and the Orioles are expected to make a big play to get him.
When did Carlos Lee become the second coming of Frank Robinson? Lee’s career on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) is .830; this year it’s about .890. Alfonso Soriano, also a free agent this winter, has a career OPS of .837 and is having his best year too, with a .961 OPS. For comparison’s sake, Jay Gibbons the past two seasons has put up an OPS of .833 and .841
In a perfect world, the O's also would sign or acquire another solid run-producer to play first base or fill the designated hitter role.
In a perfect world, Leo Mazzone could pitch. In a perfect world, there would be no such thing as Curt Schilling, Pete Harnisch and Steve Finley for Glenn Davis.
Of course, there is one other big need that will be much tougher to fill - the first slot in the starting rotation. The Orioles are not likely to be competitive if they hand Erik Bedard the ball on Opening Day and hope that the other young pitchers fall in behind him.
Yes! Exactly! Now Peter’s talking some sense! Why did it take him 10 paragraphs and 447 words – much of which I’ve spared you – to get here?
"We need one starter better than what we've got," Perlozzo said. "Now, you've got that guy, Bedard, [Kris] Benson and our kids to fill in."
Notice there was no mention of Rodrigo Lopez, Russ Ortiz or Bruce Chen. That they are still making starts in August shows just how tightly Perlozzo’s hands are tied.
Really, we're talking about three significant acquisitions during the offseason, and maybe another solid middle reliever just to be sure. The reconfigured Orioles front office is coming off a winter during which the team signed catcher Ramon Hernandez and made solid deals for Benson and Corey Patterson, but it is going to take some power shopping in November to get back into contention.
Power shopping? What happened to that talk in the beginning that “the groundwork has been laid for a brighter future?” He’s just said the team needs four players – which is it?
"We've got some [pitching] talent," veteran Jay Gibbons said. "It's definitely the best since I've been here, but in the offseason we're still going to have to do some work. It would be nice to be in August and be right in the thick of things. I dream of playing in a pennant race.
"One big bopper and an ace changes everything. We're not that far away. It's just a matter of going out and doing it."
It’s great to dream, but two big signings like that are unlikely. The only way this team will land an ace is via trade or by growing them at home. The last time the Orioles signed a free agent starting pitcher was 2004. Care to guess who? Sidney Ponson. Going all the way back to the winter of 2000, here are the free agent starters that the team has managed to sign: Rick Helling, Omar Daal, Pat Hentgen, Willis Roberts, Jose Mercedes and Pat Rapp. Enough to send chills up any fan’s spine.
There's probably a little more to it than that. Even with the new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) coming on line, the Orioles might never be able to compete dollar-for-dollar with the Yankees unless they wilt under the weight of their annual $200 million payroll and their giant revenue sharing and payroll tax burden.
Enough with the fixation on George Steinbrenner’s cash. MASN will never produce the revenue of the Yankees’ YES Network, but it doesn’t have to. Last year’s White Sox won a World Series with a $75 million payroll. The Yankees will always have the most money, but they haven’t won a championship in six seasons!
"You have to think that they are going to come back to the pack," Perlozzo said. "It's not like they have all the young players. They can't get everybody. Sooner or later, you're hoping the availability of players is not there for them. If we continue to be smart and make some signings, then definitely we can compete."
The fans are understandably skeptical, but owner Peter Angelos has said on several occasions that he's willing to spend what it takes to return the Orioles to glory. That opportunity will present itself again in a few months.
The question isn’t whether Angelos is willing to spend the money, the question is whether spending gobs of extra money is the right course. Look at the Blue Jays. They spent $106.5 million last winter on A. J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan and Benjie Molina and where has it gotten them? Third place, exactly where they’ve finished seven of the last eight years.
Free agents aren’t the answer. It’s tough to convince the best to play in Baltimore and the strategy of simply throwing cash at whoever will take it is not the way to build a sustainable winning franchise. We need to look no further than the Warehouse since 1998 for proof.