O's leave empty-handed


THE GOOD NEWS for the Orioles is that the American League East just got a little less competitive.

Take away Pedro Martinez from the Red Sox and, until Boston pries Tim Hudson away from Oakland, it's one fewer Hall of Fame-caliber ace breathing down the Orioles' neck.

Otherwise, Martinez's likely move to the New York Mets is rotten all the way around, not the least of which because the absence of this rare baseball talent and character from our divisional orbit will be sadly noticeable.

Life without Senor Plunk visiting Camden Yards and slinking through the Fenway clubhouse will never be the same.

Whether it is with his arm, his mind or his mouth, Martinez is the rare kind of player who drives attendance, boosts walk-up sales and spices up the daily theater of baseball. He knows how to pitch and how to play the game - on and off the field - expertly.

Like Randy Johnson and Barry Bonds, Martinez is in that special category of superstar baseball player for whom every start, every appearance warrants your total attention. Then there are his non-pitching days. Even better.

Now the Red Sox are diminished, not only in talent, but also in intrigue - an equally important asset in these days when AL East histrionics have risen to epic proportions, the likes of which not seen since Babe Ruth was so famously sold.

The loss of the talent and entertainment value is one thing. What's worse is that with the Martinez deal, the price of free agents this winter has escalated to intergalactic levels.

It's stunning enough that Martinez is leaving Boston, which has survived the more recent big-star losses of Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn and Nomar Garciaparra. But that someone was eager to pay the slender, 33-year-old diva $14 million a year for four years? It's one thing had the Red Sox been willing to pay a premium for Martinez and his Cy Young/Cooperstown credentials. Some guys you pay on past performance, especially franchise players who epitomized a team and a city for so many years.

But the Mets? Isn't this the same club that's trying to dump Mike Piazza and his hefty salary? The Mets continue to demonstrate a willingness to drive the market into the stratosphere, without much to show for it, except the reputation of a back-breaker for teams that aren't in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston.

That apparently includes Baltimore.

This is not a baseball winter for the weak of heart or for the tight with checkbook.

Fly-ball pitcher Russ Ortiz got $33 million to give up homers for the Diamondbacks. Troy Glaus got $45 million, not including the $1 million extra for his wife's "equestrian pursuits."

Carl Pavano, with one really good year in the majors in front of an excellent defensive team in Florida, got $40 million from the Yankees.

Kris Benson and Jon Lieber got the "standard" $21 million to $23 million, three-year deals from the Mets and Phillies.

The Orioles continue to look like the geeky latecomer to the school dance this winter. Where is the Orioles' playbook from last year, the one that had Miguel Tejada as the team's clear-cut, No. 1 free agent?

It was a beautiful, simple strategy: Train eye on single, star player. Pester free agent's agent until he has not experienced one uninterrupted night of sleep, forcing sleep-deprived agent to force star player to relent.

Extend dollars and length of contract beyond comfort zone of team owner Peter Angelos, who says he wants to compete and win. Get a deal done. Hold news conference. Everyone smile and say, "Who cares? The Orioles paid a lot, but, boy, did they need to do this."

That leads us to Carlos Delgado.

If Tejada is worth six years for $72 million, then Delgado has to be worth four years for $52 million - especially in this market. But the Orioles have been outside the action.

Instead of identifying their single important need, they have zigged and zagged this winter, accentuating their many needs by failing to haul in an upgrade anywhere.

They deserve an "F" so far, but a "C" better suits them.

"C" for confused.

After what the Mets have guaranteed Pedro Martinez, though, aren't we all?

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