As baseball's winter meetings ground to a halt today, there was a palpable feeling of unmet expectations. Ken Griffey Jr. remained with the Seattle Mariners. The free agent pitcher dominoes had not fallen into place. And the Baltimore Orioles and other teams still were waiting for word from Chuck Finley before charting their next course.
Director of player personnel Syd Thrift and the rest of the Orioles contingent departed for the East Coast this afternoon without the front-line starting pitcher they had come west to find. But across baseball, business will continue in earnest via phone and fax.
The Orioles made a modified offer Monday night to Finley, considered the prize catch of a relatively weak field of free agent pitchers--an offer that pushed them "relatively close" to Finley's asking price of $27 million over three years. Still, Thrift left today completely in the dark as to Finley's intentions; Finley had also received similar offers from Seattle and Cleveland. Finley and his agent, Tim Shannon, were in Cleveland on Tuesday night, and the Associated Press reported the Indians had offered Finley a three-year deal worth $23 million.
Until the Orioles get an answer from Finley, the rest of their business--including trade talks with the New York Mets involving pitcher Scott Erickson and left fielder B.J. Surhoff, and discussion with other free agent pitchers--is on hold. Finley holds the key to the Orioles' choice of direction for 2000.
If the Orioles sign Finley, a 37-year-old left-hander--to join a staff that also includes Mike Mussina, Erickson, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson--they will have arguably as good a starting rotation as anyone in the American League, and would consider themselves legitimate contenders. They would likely retain Surhoff and Erickson and search for smaller ways--bench and bullpen--to prepare for an all-out run at the New York Yankees.
If they lose out on Finley, they would be more inclined to view 2000 as a transitional year--to the extent that is possible with a roster loaded with no-trade clauses and large, unmovable contracts.
Talks involving Surhoff and Erickson have focused on the Orioles' desire to get younger and faster. The players most discussed from the Mets' side have been outfielder Roger Cedeno, whom the Orioles envision as a left fielder, and promising young right-hander Octavio Dotel.
"There's no way I'm giving up a sure thing," Thrift said, "for any possibilities."
Thrift also acknowledged that the Orioles-Mets talks were held up by the Mets' futile pursuit of Griffey, the Mariners' superstar center fielder, since the Mets' package offered to Seattle included Dotel, Cedeno and former Oriole Armando Benitez. A deal was believed to have been struck late Monday night, but Griffey, who holds full no-trade power, vetoed it.
Thrift did not characterize the Orioles' possible downsizing as a "rebuilding" effort. "I don't think you can ever sensibly make a commitment in Baltimore to have a total rebuilding season," he said. "We would have to be willing to dismantle 80 percent of everything, and I don't think that's realistic."
Still, the high level of interest in their prospects during the winter meetings confirmed the Orioles' belief that their farm system is ready to produce impact players. "In the past, we could never replace players here [from within] because we never had the players to replace them with," Thrift said. "Now, when I go to a club and ask them who they like for trades, and they name six or eight players, I think we're in pretty good position."
The Orioles' other potential avenues for acquiring a front-line starting pitcher do not look promising. Free agent right-hander Aaron Sele, considered the second most-attractive pitcher on the market, won't be coming to the Orioles, Thrift said, unless there is "a major change in [his] demands." Sele is believed to be asking for four years at around $25 million.
At the same time, in today's pitching-starved market, teams possessing marketable young pitchers are asking for astronomical returns, and willingly admit so.
"A lot of people don't understand it, but we're only interested in getting premier players when people ask about one of our young pitchers," said Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Cam Bonifay, whose team has entertained offers for right-handers Jason Schmidt and Francisco Cordova. "If someone wants to give me a guy who's going to hit 40 to 50 homers, the answer is yes. But in our position, we have to be careful about things like depth and number of innings [in the starting rotation]."
The Orioles have made offers for starting pitchers, and have also entertained offers for Surhoff, Erickson, shortstop Mike Bordick, and others. "Every ball is in everyone else's court right now," Thrift said. "I have told [other teams] exactly what we expect, and there will be no deviation, nor any substitutions or plan B's." And if nothing can be worked out? "That's fine with me. Some of the best trades are the ones you don't make."
The moves the Orioles did make over the course of this long weekend don't amount to much: They traded 42-year-old lefty Jesse Orosco to the Mets for another left-handed reliever, Chuck McElroy. They acquired minor league reliever Richard Negrette, a hard-throwing right-hander with control problems, from the Cubs for minor league shortstop Augie Ojeda. They sent infielder Jeff Reboulet to Kansas City for a player to be named later. They lost two minor league catchers in the Rule 5 draft, further depleting a thin position in the organization.
The Orioles cemented deals for backup catcher Greg Myers (believed to be one year, $500,000) and first baseman-outfielder Jeff Conine (two years, $5.5 million), both of which are expected to be announced this week. But they made no progress on left-hander Arthur Rhodes, who is expected to choose soon between a three-year, $8 million offer to remain with the Orioles, and what are believed to be more lucrative offers from Seattle and Cleveland.
And today, they acquired minor league first baseman Stephen Larkin, younger brother of Barry, from the Reds for a player to be named later. Thrift said Larkin, 26, has a shot at making the Orioles' Class AAA roster in Rochester.
But the combined impact of those deals does not match the Orioles' intentions when the winter meetings began.
"What it means," Thrift said, "is we have do more work to get ourselves in a stronger position."