The Baltimore Orioles' new two-headed front-office chief -- known individually as Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, but tagged by one rival executive this week with the unfortunate-sounding "Beatagan" -- will roll into the Opryland Hotel on Friday for baseball's winter meetings armed with zillions of ideas to improve the team, but limited by some of the same realities facing many teams this winter:
* A slow-to-develop free agent market.
* A reluctance on the part of teams to hand out long-term contracts, which are increasingly difficult to insure.
* A sense of uncertainty over the financial impact of the new labor agreement.
* An unwillingness to make trades unless the salaries balance out.
"What seems to be going on," said Beattie, hired just over a week ago as the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations, "is that not that many clubs have resources to sign a free agent to add to their roster. So that means other avenues are being explored. Making deals, dollar for dollar deals, seems to be the overriding concern for clubs. When we have [trade] discussions with other clubs, it's always, 'We can't take on any dollars.' "
However, while traditional spenders such as the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers are cash-strapped to the point of being virtual non-factors this weekend, the Orioles are among the few teams willing and able to take on payroll.
Beattie and Flanagan said they expected to receive parameters for next season's payroll budget from owner Peter Angelos before departing from Baltimore on Friday morning. Most likely, they will be given the leeway to make a significant increase from last season's payroll of about $50 million.
The Orioles are expected to be the leading suitors for all-star catcher Ivan Rodriguez. They might make free agent offers to outfielder Cliff Floyd, Edgardo Alfonzo and Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui. And they almost certainly will acquire a shortstop, either this weekend or soon after. They have identified Rey Sanchez, Jose Hernandez, Deivi Cruz and Chris Gomez as their primary targets there.
"We're going to be looking for a couple of bats," said Flanagan, the Orioles' new vice president of baseball operations. "We're going to be looking to strengthen our club in whatever way we think we can. And we're looking at shortstops."
The free agent market, Beattie said, "is not quickly developing, that's for sure. People are still tiptoeing into the market. There's a consideration on the part of a lot of clubs not to be the guy to go out and set a market."
If the free agent market fails to suit the Orioles, they might also fill one or more of their needs from what is expected to be an exceedingly active trade market, with names such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero believed to be available.
"We're going to listen," Flanagan said, "on everybody who is perceived to be available."
However, Beattie cautioned: "In the offseason it's easy to make splashes that in the short term can answer some fans' concerns. But in the longer term, they want a winning team. Our focus is going to be on whoever can help us win baseball games, not necessarily to answer fans who say, 'We want Ken Griffey Jr.' These players need to be worth the money we're paying them."
Even before leaving for Nashville, Beattie and Flanagan had spoken with Omar Minaya, general manager of the Montreal Expos and the man certain to be the most popular lunch partner in Nashville this weekend.
Minaya's bosses at Major League Baseball are requiring Minaya to shed payroll -- perhaps $10 million or more -- this winter, which means young stars such as Bartolo Colon, Javier Vazquez, Jose Vidro and Guerrero could be available.
The Orioles could get their shortstop by scavenging the Expos, since Orlando Cabrera is one of the players who could be dumped in the salary purge. Cabrera, 28, hit 14 homers, drove in 96 runs and made only 11 errors in 2001, before slipping to 7, 56 and 29, respectively, last season. He is expected to make around $4 million in arbitration next season.
Despite last season's horrid 4-32 finish, a half-decade's worth of fourth-place finishes and farm-system shambles, the Orioles believe they have enough marketable talent to pull off at least one big deal.
This could be the winter the Orioles finally part ways with right-hander and perpetual trade bait Sidney Ponson. Despite a career record of 41-53 in five seasons and a recent history of shoulder trouble, Ponson remains one of the most marketable players on the team, at least among the ones the Orioles are willing to talk about.
Orioles Notes: The team released its 2003 spring training schedule, highlighted by a March 28 exhibition game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards against the New York Mets. It will be the Orioles' first exhibition game in Baltimore in five years.
The Orioles will open their Grapefruit League schedule Feb. 27 in Jupiter, Fla., against the Florida Marlins, with their home opener the following day at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Stadium, also against the Marlins.