O's players: We need free-agent help

As the Orioles' front office enters another crucial offseason, it faces the challenge of appeasing not only a disgruntled fan base, but also several of the club's top players.

Before the team finished its ninth straight losing season, a 70-92 campaign that was the franchise's worst since 2002, several Orioles veterans stressed last week that a productive offseason is imperative in order to close the gap with the New York Yankees.They weren't exactly cries for help, but the frustration was obvious.

"I don't know how much more losing we can take around here without making progress," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "I think this offseason is very important."

Said star shortstop Miguel Tejada: "We need a lot. That's the only thing I can say. We need a lot to compete. [The front office] knows what we need. I don't need to say what we need."

The Orioles' brass has spoken plenty about the team's shortcomings and says they will be addressed this offseason. Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan and vice president Jim Duquette have their sights set on revamping the second-worst bullpen in the American League and adding a veteran starting pitcher and at least one more bat in the middle of the lineup.

The club has a thin roster that lacks significant trade chips - aside from Tejada and several young pitchers whom the Orioles are reluctant to give up - so free agency appears to be the best opportunity to plug holes.

"For us to turn it around we need to have success on the free-agent market," Duquette said. "We can't say it is acceptable what is going on this year and in the past. We have to go out and we have to be impressive, both in free agency and trades.

"It would be nice to find a trade, like the one we did with Corey Patterson - a guy coming off a down year. We are going to need to do that and get a couple of free agents."

Similar to last year, the free-agent field will be top-heavy at certain positions but will lack depth. For example, San Francisco's Jason Schmidt and Oakland's Barry Zito are the only two pitchers expected to be on the market who come even close to resembling an ace, and both likely will exceed what the Orioles are willing to spend on a pitcher. Toronto's Ted Lilly will be one of the top pitchers available, and he had never won more than 12 games before this season, when he won 15.

Asked about the anticipated free-agent pool, one American League general manager said: "I think there are a lot of teams that have money to spend, but the supply is not there."

Buoyed by dollars from their regional television deal with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, Orioles officials say the club will expand its payroll, though by how much is unknown.

While there have been several organizational meetings over the last month, Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos has not given his executives a budget to work under. Traditionally, he has not done so, preferring to deal with potential moves on a case-by-case basis. Angelos would not comment for this article.

The Orioles' payroll was about $80 million in 2006, but it is down to about $60 million heading into the offseason with the expiration of several contracts, the biggest belonging to former catcher-designated hitter Javy Lopez.

Angelos, who watched attendance drop to an all-time low at Camden Yards this season, has said recently that a payroll of $100 million is necessary to compete with the Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Flanagan wouldn't divulge specifics about the Orioles' spending, but said that "all indications that we have is that we're going to be able to be active on the free-agent market."

With nearly six weeks until the onset of free agency - it starts 15 days after the conclusion of the World Series - Orioles officials are mum about their targets.

However, it is expected that Washington Nationals outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who reached the exclusive 40-40 club (46 home runs, 41 stolen bases) this season, will be atop their wish list, ahead of Texas power-hitting outfielder Carlos Lee and Yankees first baseman-outfielder Gary Sheffield.

The competition and price tag are expected to be steep for all three. One American League executive said Soriano most likely will command a six-year deal at about $16 million per season. Tejada, who shares the same agent as Soriano and said he would put in a good word for the Orioles if asked, is the club's highest-paid player and will make $12 million next season.

Asked if he'd welcome Soriano or Lee protecting him in the lineup, Tejada said: "It would be great, if that's what they want to do. We just need to bring in the best guys we can in here."

Designated hitter Jay Gibbons, one of the longest tenured members of the team after six seasons here, said that the organization needs to "go to the next level in spending" to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, and even the Toronto Blue Jays, who have vowed to expand their payroll again this offseason.

"You can hope for that one year where everyone puts it together, like the Marlins did a couple of years ago and even Minnesota, but that is kind of an aberration," he said. "You need to pay guys. We have to step it up, because we need some help."

Several Orioles acknowledged that getting players to sign with a club in the midst of nine straight losing seasons is a tough sell, but not an impossible one. It comes down to proving to would-be free agents that the club is ready to win.

"Most of these people have money already," said third baseman Melvin Mora, who has been instrumental in the past in trying to recruit free agents to Baltimore. "People are going to come here if they think we are going to win."

Said Gibbons: "I talk to a lot of players and they love the city, they love the stadium, obviously. But guys want to win. Guys want to know the teams that commit to win. Actions speak louder than words. Though in saying that, I have all the confidence that we are going to go out there and do the best we can to make this team a contender."

Duquette vowed to explore all avenues to help the team and said that the club will be aggressive. However, he disagreed with the theory that the front office needs to go out and floor a player with a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

"We're not at a point where we can do that," said Duquette. "We have to pursue, schmooze and we have to educate free agents on what we are trying to do and how they fit in. That can't be done in 24 hours, in an offer of take it or leave it.

"There's only one team that can afford to do that, and that's the Yankees. Everyone knows what they are trying to do year in and year out. The rest of the teams have to negotiate and be part of the process."