SARASOTA, Fla. -- Kevin Brown, fine pickup. Doug Jones, he'll help, too. But don't believe for a minute the Orioles had no choice but to sign free agents. Don't believe for a minute that other clubs are conspiring against them to prevent trades.
Fact: Orioles general manager Roland Hemond failed to follow up on trade talks for John Wetteland after Montreal asked for Armando Benitez.
Fact: Hemond didn't even know David Cone was available while pursuing trades for two other Kansas City pitchers.
Fact: Hemond backed out of a potential deal for Marquis Grissom knowing the Orioles were one of only three teams Grissom would consider long-term.
The problem isn't outside the organization.
The problem is within.
No matter how many baseball people are angry with Peter Angelos, they'd trade with the Orioles in a heartbeat if they felt it would benefit their club.
Expos general manager Kevin Malone sharply criticized Angelos February, claiming his stance against replacement players was "self-serving."
However, Malone repeated yesterday that he would not permit his opinion of a rival owner to interfere with efforts to improve his club.
"I respect the man. I don't always agree with everything he does," Malone said. "If they were going to give me better ballplayers, I would have dealt with the Orioles."
The point is, the Orioles didn't offer better players, not for Grissom, not for Wetteland and certainly not for Cone.
They might have landed Grissom if they parted with their top starting pitching prospect (Jimmy Haynes) and one of their two top outfield prospects (Alex Ochoa).
Instead, the Atlanta Braves acquired Grissom for outfielders Roberto Kelly, Tony Tarasco and minor-league pitcher Esteban Yan.
Malone said he was willing to consider other Orioles prospects, but Hemond phoned him at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to pull out of the talks.
"Roland and the Orioles ended the discussion," Malone said. "They removed themselves."
The pattern was similar with Wetteland. Malone confirmed that he wanted Benitez. Hemond said no, then waited for a return phone call.
"I said, 'Maybe we could still talk,' " Malone recalled, "but by the time we [resumed] talking, we had moved Wetteland and [Ken] Hill."
Is this so difficult?
Make a call, get creative, offer other players.
When the competition is your chief division rival, it's the least you can do.
The New York Yankees sure didn't waste time snatching Wetteland for minor-league outfielder Fernando Seguignol, a player to be named and a reported sum of $2 million to $2.5 million.
American League vice president Phyllis Merhige said yesterday that the commissioner's office might investigate the deal, because clubs normally require approval to complete transactions involving more than $1 million.
The commissioner's office.
That's a good one.
The deal is done, done because the Yankees were shrewd and willing to part with a whopping sum of money -- not because of any conspiracy against the Orioles.
The Expos couldn't be expected to beg Hemond when they had better offers. Likewise, the Royals couldn't be expected to whisper in his ear about Cone.
Of the trades that fell through, the failure to land Grissom was the most excusable, seeing as how the Orioles are loaded with center-field prospects, and didn't want to make a five-year, $30 million investment at that position.
The addition of Wetteland would have presented a similar predicament if the Orioles had managed to keep Benitez, so that one is forgivable, too.
But the loss of Cone?
To the Blue Jays?
For the second time?
Hemond was so busy trying to land Kevin Appier or Tom Gordon, he forgot to ask about the most recent Cy Young winner, when everyone in baseball knew the Royals were dumping salaries, and Cone had the biggest of all.
Last night, the Royals offered Appier and Gordon salary arbitration, adding to the Orioles' embarrassment. It's still possible Kansas City will trade one of the pitchers. But right now, it appears the Orioles blew it in more ways than one.
They were left with Brown, who had a 4.82 ERA last season, and Jones, who is 38 years old. True, Brown has averaged 208 innings the past six seasons. True, Jones walked only six batters last season, and earned 27 saves.
Still, who would you rather have?
Cone or Brown?
Wetteland or Jones?
Ah, but at least the Orioles held on to their precious prospects -- the ones developed by the evil Doug Melvin.
The ones with so much potential.
The ones who so often disappoint.
Sure, it would have been pointless to trade Haynes and Ochoa for Grissom if the Orioles intended to keep the center fielder for only one season.
But Grissom, through his agent, Eric Goldschmidt, told the Expos that he was willing to sign long-term contracts with only three teams -- the Orioles, Braves and Florida Marlins.
"They said they would have no trouble playing in Baltimore," Malone said. "That was one thing they seemed genuinely excited about."
In other words, the Orioles had a competitive advantage over every other team in the American League. Such opportunities are rare. And Hemond passed, anyway.
True, the addition of Grissom would have retarded the progress of Curtis Goodwin, and resulted in the loss of Ochoa.
But Goodwin and Ochoa are prospects, and Grissom is an All-Star.
There's no conspiracy, for heaven's sake.
& The problem is within.