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No time for Orioles to waver: Give Marlins what they want


SEATTLE - Just do it.

The Orioles have a chance to make a deal with the Florida Marlins that features starter A.J. Burnett as the centerpiece. All they have to do is give up Hayden Penn, Larry Bigbie, Jorge Julio and Steve Kline and accept Mike Lowell, who used to be a third baseman coveted by the Orioles, but who could now play first base.

It's the kind of move that pre-empts significant action on the part of the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, not to mention any of the other playoff contenders in Los Angeles, Chicago or San Diego.

Just do it.

"You always like to have that dominant starter to get to the postseason. Who knows? We might have that guy here, but it would be nice to have that proven one," pitching coach Ray Miller said yesterday.

Erik Bedard is scheduled to make his first start in two months tomorrow. He will be a boost, he will be rested, but he's not a proven No. 1.

Sidney Ponson has driven the Orioles to distraction, requiring a special talk with manager Lee Mazzilli in the past week.

"The biggest thing for me is Sidney's consistency," Miller said. "We had a long talk last year and I asked Maz to talk to him again. Maz does a good job one-on-one and all of us need a little pat on the back.

"Sidney gets so bullheaded, so macho, he wants to go mano-a-mano. That's OK when you're throwing 95, 96 mph, but when your fastball is 91, 92, 93, you have to use all your pitches. At some point, the player has to do it. That's where we're at with him."

Ponson turned around during the second half last year after a terrible start, but the pattern should be enough to persuade the Orioles not to count on him to be their ace.

Daniel Cabrera has great stuff but is still inexperienced enough to need mid-game reminders from Miller to stay the course and throw all of his pitches. Bruce Chen and Rodrigo Lopez are serviceable, but not Game 1 starters in anyone's postseason series.

The evidence of the first half of the season and the Orioles' current standing (a game behind Boston after last night's loss to the Seattle Mariners) point to a deal for Burnett, who currently has a 5-6 record with a 3.64 ERA (his career ERA over six years is 3.83) being just what the team needs.

The Orioles are good enough to be a contender and the organization is in a situation in which it should sacrifice Julio, Penn, Bigbie and Kline for a legitimate shot at October.

The team's front office says it prefers to look the other way when the Yankees and Red Sox are experiencing emergencies, even ones that present a dangerous ripple effect to the Orioles.

We're talking pitching, pitching, pitching.

"I'm not sure you can react to some else's reaction. We go over our team daily and talk, but you don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction," Mazzilli said yesterday.

If the Yankees and Red Sox are buyers, the market is not only crowded, it's bananas.

Like, the fact that the Yankees are signing such veteran castoffs as Al Leiter and the Red Sox are reported to be battling the Orioles for Burnett by offering starter Bronson Arroyo and prospects.

Don't think the Red Sox would hesitate to pull the trigger.

"There are players out there that people say we shouldn't let go to the Red Sox and Yankees and we say let them. They're not going to make us better," Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said yesterday.

If Cy Young, Warren Spahn or Nolan Ryan were to hit the market, maybe, maybe, the Orioles would leap before they looked.

The Orioles aren't blind to the fact that their American League East rivals, not to mention the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers and San Diego Padres "might jump in the [trade market] ahead of us, but we're only going to make a deal if it's an upgrade," Beattie said.

The Orioles' front office has made a reputation for itself of being slow to react, reluctant to pull the trigger on deals, overly cautious about trading away the future for the sake - they say "risk" - of a player who's expected to help them win now, as in today and this season.

In most cases, their instincts and caution about not wasting precious commodities (Penn, Jay Gibbons or Bigbie) has not hurt them.

The favorite mantra around the warehouse?

"If during spring training we had told you the Orioles would be a half game behind the Red Sox going into last night's game against the Mariners, would you have been happy?"


But now that the Orioles are in this race, the stakes are higher and the margin for error smaller.

If the Yankees and Red Sox (among others) are accelerating the market for pitchers, the Orioles won't have the luxury of getting first dibs on a player who fits their category of "upgrade."

Burnett has been on the market for weeks, but now the Marlins hold a lot more cards, since six teams are in the hunt.

Still, the Orioles hold the cards. If they play them, are willing to throw them down, they could wind up holding a lot more than cards.

"You're always looking to improve," Miller said.

Time to stop looking. Time to act.

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