This much is clear: O's will figure in playoffs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GOOD TO SEE the Orioles in the thick of so many playoff races. Call it living vicariously.

There's the American League East (Yankees and Red Sox). Wild card (Red Sox, Mariners and Athletics). Then there's the AL West.

In Oakland, where the Orioles started a demanding swing last night, the A's are mounting their annual grand-slammin' charge against the perennial September saggers, the Mariners.

Now, it's just a question of whether the Orioles will affect this race on the field or through trades.

Jeff Conine and/or Tony Batista could give the Mariners the boost the front office has again failed to give them down the stretch. The Orioles could ask for Maryland native Ken Cloude and Ryan Anderson, the 6-foot-10 prospect once dubbed "Little Unit."

In Seattle, reliever Jeff Nelson was "banished" to the Yankees for Armando Benitez for telling the truth. The Mariners needed and expected help at the trade deadline and when they didn't get any, look at the results. The Mariners are reeling down the stretch - again.

Can the benevolent Orioles come to the rescue? Four more days until playoff rosters have to be set.

It's nice to be needed.

Meanwhile, the A's lost ace Mark Mulder for the season and could use a veteran pitcher like the resurgent Pat Hentgen. Maybe Oakland GM Billy Beane will show what a good guy he is and send third baseman Eric Chavez to Baltimore for Hentgen and Batista.

We can always dream, especially because the Orioles are all about what happens off the field, through trades and free-agent signings this winter.

We have all the answers we need in Luis Matos, Jay Gibbons, Larry Bigbie, Jerry Hairston and Brian Roberts. A very attractive nucleus.

Meanwhile, we've seen enough of Robert Machado, Jose Leon and Jack Cust. Time to think bigger. Time to think ahead.

Question: Does Oakland's surge put hot-hitting and reigning AL Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada, a free agent this winter, back on the front burner for the Orioles?

Surely, scrappy Roberts (now that Hairston's coming back) isn't the final answer at short when an impact player is needed.

If we only knew.

In fact, that is the current mantra of Baltimore baseball fans: If only we knew.

If only we knew what Major League Baseball was going to do with the Montreal Expos, because their fate must be settled before Orioles owner Peter Angelos can set a budget for the Orioles in 2004 - and beyond.

Baseball was supposed to decide on a new home for the Expos by the All-Star break. The deadline passed without an explanation - what a surprise - and still three eager locales (Washington, northern Virginia and Portland, Ore.) are jumping through hoops, trying to secure the franchise - or at least get a straight answer from commissioner Bud Selig.

Now baseball has less than two weeks to submit the entire 2004 schedule to the players' association for approval, which means the Expos will probably split time again between Montreal and Puerto Rico, unless a curveball's coming.

Until baseball finally deals with the Expos, Baltimore has a cloud over it, too.

The Orioles are widely considered to figure among the biggest spenders this offseason. That's good, because it should be a good winter to spend, with a depressed market and plenty of free agents looking for the money.

Despite the stars lining up for a good Orioles shopping spree, there's the issue of liability and market share. With Angelos insisting his territorial rights and profits will be compromised with a team in D.C., a question hangs over Camden Yards.

Then there are the twin GMs. If only we knew what Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan are really thinking.

Yes, it's tampering to discuss specific players on other teams. So no, we don't want a specific list of targets. But what about a solid forecast on payroll and personnel needs?

After this season, the Orioles lose Albert Belle's contract. They're off the hook for Scott Erickson. They're plus $30 million before even considering adding payroll, not to mention projections that the Orioles' payroll could soar to $85 million by 2005, about $20 million more than it may be next season.

"That's a hell of a party," is all Beattie and Flanagan will say, neither confirming nor denying a significant payroll increase.

Are the Orioles going to pay for a big gun like Vladimir Guerrero, as wildly anticipated in some quarters? Big money on one player is not good business and not the trend, except for the Rangers (bad moves) or the Yankees (still the team to beat).

The Orioles could go the route of the Mariners, who signed a core of mid-level ($8 million to $9 million) impact players (John Olerud, Bret Boone, Ichiro "Underpaid" Suzuki), and focus on pitching.

Then again, the Orioles have a core of very inexpensive young players. With savings in center, right and second, they have flexibility to pay top market price at positions where they need total impact players. Maybe on this team with young, cheap talent, Guerrero makes sense.

The signing of No. 1 draft pick Adam Loewen was a good sign that Angelos will listen and spend, as he did spend back in 1996 and '97. More money on pitching must come.

Kevin Millwood, Andy Pettitte and Greg Maddux are up for new deals. Sidney Ponson could barely leave Baltimore after he was dealt. He'd come back, if the Orioles want him. Bartolo Colon will cost too much, which means the Yankees or Mets will sign him, but he's out there.

In some baseball cities, they're playing games the next month to determine their October fates.

In Baltimore, it's all about November, December and January - unless the A's, Mariners or any other teams want to make deals before Sunday.

It's nice to feel a part of the action.

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