In a crowd, O's could sneak off with Carter


TORONTO -- At least eight free agents will seek contracts this winter similar to the $30.5 million deal Cal Ripken signed with the Orioles. But the money probably won't be there for all of them, creating an opening for a shrewd club trying to "steal" a premier free agent for a relatively low price.

The Orioles can be that club.

The Orioles can sign Joe Carter.

Club president Larry Lucchino says the team will maintain a "healthy skepticism" toward free agents, even after the most profitable season in franchise history. That's fine, but what if the 32-year-old Carter finds himself squeezed in a market overflowing with younger players deemed more desirable?

It could happen.

Barry Bonds, Kirby Puckett, Ruben Sierra and Mark McGwire are the other premier sluggers eligible for free agency. David Cone, Doug Drabek and Greg Maddux are the dominant starting C pitchers. Each would be in position to become the game's highest-paid player -- if none of the others were available.

But because the free-agent class is so crowded, it's almost certain one or two of them will be forced to lower their demands. Most clubs are trying to reduce their payrolls -- especially large-market teams reeling from reckless free-agent signings. The laws of supply-and-demand point to a glut.

Carter leads the majors with 772 RBI the past seven seasons, but Toronto might prefer to replace him in right field with Sierra, a speedy switch-hitter who is five years younger and better suited to artificial turf. Thus, the question: Who's going to give Carter the big money?

Not any team that signs Bonds, Puckett or McGwire. Not the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets or any other team coming off terrible seasons with bloated payrolls. Probably not anyone, although no one dares predict what this market will bear.

The Orioles can't sign Carter to one of their beloved Triple-A contracts, mind you, but maybe they could get him for fewer years (three?) and a lower annual salary ($4 million?). In the game's bizarre economic climate, that price doesn't seem unreasonable.

Of course, numerous factors complicate the picture -- Eli Jacobs' financial troubles for one, and the game's uncertain labor situation for another. But the Orioles are one power hitter short of winning the AL East. Right fielder Joe Orsulak is a free agent. It all makes too much sense.

Carter meets two important requirements -- he's sound defensively and a clubhouse leader. Jeffrey Hammonds or Mark Smith could replace him by the time his contract expires. Carter could even move to first base if either No. 1 draft pick is ready sooner. Glenn Davis is signed only through next season.

Recent history shows that the right free-agent signings can be instrumental to a team's success. Witness the last three World Series participants -- Atlanta (Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream), Minnesota (Jack Morris, Chili Davis) and Toronto (Morris, Dave Winfield). Witness the Orioles this season with Rick Sutcliffe.

For all the criticism they receive, the Orioles actually take the proper approach to free agency, preferring to develop players through their farm system. They reached this point by trading veterans for prospects and building a pitching staff through the draft. In essence, their approach is not unlike Atlanta's.

The difference is that the Braves, drawing on Ted Turner's deep pockets, made wise free-agent decisions to plug their remaining holes. Granted, the Orioles can't draw on the financial resources of a communications empire. But to consider them a small-market team at this point is folly.

This isn't to say they should become the only team with two $30 million players, totally abandoning fiscal responsibility. Lucchino worked under former owner Edward Bennett Williams when the Orioles signed Fred Lynn, Don Aase and Lee Lacy before the '86 season. No one wants to repeat that mistake.

Indeed, the club's "healthy skepticism" proved beneficial at the 1990 winter meetings when the front office backed off Matt Young and Franklin Stubbs, two notable free-agent busts. But now the market is changing, to the point where Joe Carter is a realistic goal.

If the past is any indication, the Orioles will offer an aging veteran such as Andre Dawson a one-year contract and be done with it. In this unusual climate, Dawson should be nothing more than a fallback. The Orioles can sign Joe Carter. All they must do is let the cards fall, one by one.

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