By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. Dec. 7 -- In the wee hours of Thursday morning, agent Gregg Clifton came out of an elevator after a marathon night of negotiations holding a briefcase and looking exhausted. He shuffled toward two reporters, and with the tip of his index finger and the tip of his thumb indicated a distance of about one millimeter, how close -- in his opinion -- the Baltimore Orioles had come to signing free agent outfielder Luis Gonzalez, who instead chose the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That distance also could be seen as a measure of how little the Orioles accomplished this week at baseball's winter meetings, and perhaps how little patience their fans likely will have if the team fails to make significant roster changes again this offseason.
The Orioles, who lost first baseman Josh Phelps -- a probable bench player -- in the Rule 5 draft and designated reliever Aaron Rakers for assignment, may leave the winter meetings a weaker team than when team executives arrived on Sunday. The only move Baltimore made was acquiring utility player Freddie Bynum, whose most notable achievement was committing three errors in one game last season.
"Long week," Orioles Vice President Jim Duquette said.
"I don't think it's indicative of the work you put in," Orioles Executive Vice President Mike Flanagan said of coming home empty.
Baltimore is scrambling for a left fielder now that Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee and Gonzalez have signed elsewhere, and deals for Kevin Mench and Marcus Thames are at a stalemate. The Orioles still hope to have more conversations with Detroit about Thames, but they still need to involve another team to get a deal done.
For now, the Orioles will focus on signing outfielder Jay Payton, who likely will command at least a two-year deal. Baltimore made its first offer for Payton on Thursday.
Losing Gonzalez was particularly painful. The Orioles seemed to be closing in late Wednesday with a one-year, $7 million offer, a slight increase from their original offer. The Dodgers countered with $7.3 million, and the deal with Los Angeles was struck at approximately 1 a.m. Thursday.
"In the end it was West Coast bias," Duquette said.
Neither Duquette nor Flanagan would characterize the meetings as a failure, nor would they say they were frustrated by the lack of deals. But this week showed that Baltimore still has much work to do in attracting free agents. Not only did the Orioles lose out on Gonzalez, but on Thursday Duquette also admitted they made a serious late attempt to sign pitcher Jason Schmidt, who also ended up with the Dodgers.
"The Orioles are accurately describing the situation," Randy Hendricks, one of Schmidt's agents, confirmed in an e-mail.
One baseball official said the Orioles made an offer similar to the three-year, $47 million deal Schmidt got from the Dodgers. But Baltimore does not seem to be the top choice of free agents, no matter how much money is offered.
"I feel better about it than last year," Duquette said. "It's not a thing you can change overnight. But we've done a good job of chipping away at it."