O's stand by feats in busy offseason


O's addition of Benson among offseason feats After four exhausting days at baseball's annual winter meetings, Orioles officials left Dallas on the afternoon of Dec. 8 feeling pretty good about themselves.

They had reached an agreement with free-agent catcher Ramon Hernandez, traded for setup man LaTroy Hawkins and laid the groundwork for other moves that would be finalized in the coming months.

However, during executive vice president Mike Flanagan's three-hour flight back to Baltimore, the tenor of the Orioles' offseason changed drastically. Flanagan arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport with 18 messages on his cell phone - all because All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada told an Associated Press reporter that he wanted a "change of scenery."

Suddenly, the offseason focus shifted from adding outside talent to fielding trade offers for the club's franchise player.

"You're really never going to know how much [Tejada's trade request] affected us, but I think it's fair to say that it had some negative effect," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "You're talking about one of the best players in the game not wanting to be here at that point. It couldn't have helped with other free agents. It was bad timing, but things still went well. And I'd be shocked if Miguel Tejada doesn't have a monster year. I'd be shocked."

Flanagan acknowledged that the Tejada request "made business a lot harder to do for a while. We immediately dove in and tried to find out what was going on, but there weren't many answers coming quickly."

The Orioles considered several proposals for Tejada, including closer Brad Lidge, center fielder Willy Taveras and shortstop Adam Everett from the Houston Astros, and outfielder Manny Ramirez and pitcher Matt Clement from the Boston Red Sox.

However, after a month of trade talks and conversations with Tejada's representatives, the All-Star shortstop rescinded his demand. With spring training set to begin this week, the uncertainty surrounding Tejada, along with the loss of closer B.J. Ryan to a division rival and the failure to sign free-agent slugger Paul Konerko, put the Orioles on the wrong side of many offseason "winners and losers" columns.

"What is the criteria for getting on those lists? Trading the most? Spending the most?" Flanagan asked. "Was [Chicago White Sox general manager] Kenny Williams on the list last year? I don't remember [the White Sox] being picked by most experts. I don't evaluate my credibility on anybody's list. I feel good about what we've done."

Veteran found

In trading Jorge Julio and John Maine to the New York Mets for Kris Benson, the Orioles finally snared the veteran starter they had long been seeking. The signing of Hernandez, team executives think, coupled with the addition of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, will be a boon to the Orioles' young pitching staff.

Veterans Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar will give Perlozzo some lineup flexibility and inject life and discipline into the clubhouse. And the team is optimistic that one-time top prospect Corey Patterson, acquired from the Chicago Cubs in a trade for two minor leaguers, will re-establish his home run swing and add speed to the bottom of the order.

"I don't think we have a gaping hole anywhere," Flanagan said. "I think the club is certainly much better than the one that finished the season."

That club finished 74-88 (fourth in the American League East) and was beset all year by chemistry and off-the-field problems. Club officials hope that the departures of Sidney Ponson, Rafael Palmeiro, Steve Kline and Sammy Sosa will eliminate some of the clubhouse friction. But is it a case of addition by subtraction?

"My opinion is, no, they haven't gotten much better. ... They still have a soap opera there," said one major league general manager, referring to Tejada's about-face as well as displaced catcher Javy Lopez's trade request and subsequent withdrawal.

Another general manager believes the Orioles made some progress. "They added Benson, and that will definitely help their pitching, and their starting pitching is not bad," he said. "They should still have a good lineup. I would think they have added some guys who could be an improvement."

By all accounts, the Orioles, often criticized for indecisiveness and inactivity, were more aggressive and focused this offseason, starting with their pursuit of Konerko, the premier slugger on the free-agent market. Orioles vice president Jim Duquette and Scott Proefrock, the club's new director of baseball administration, traveled to Arizona in November to have dinner with Konerko. However, the most lucrative offer - a five-year deal worth $65 million - was not enough to lure Konerko to Baltimore as he re-signed with the White Sox.

All along, Flanagan maintained that the club was building around its young pitching and, despite the onslaught of inquiries about the availability of Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Hayden Penn and Chris Ray, it never wavered.

The Orioles considered trading for sluggers Troy Glaus, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Delgado and Bobby Abreu, but in the end, wouldn't deal at least two of their top young players - usually pitchers - which essentially ended discussions.

"If you have an unlimited amount of those sort of players, you can get involved a little more," Flanagan said. "There will come a time where we feel we are sufficiently stocked enough that we will have an excess."

Limited market

Facing one of the thinnest free-agent markets in years, the Orioles maintained a short list of targets and retained their discipline with their checkbook. That list did not include free-agent pitcher A.J. Burnett, whose price tag scared off the Orioles, or outfielders Brian Giles or Johnny Damon, both of whom commanded expensive, long-term commitments that the Orioles weren't interested in, with several of their prospects on the cusp of the major leagues.

Pitcher Paul Byrd was on the list early, but he didn't accept the Orioles' final offer and headed to Cleveland. The Orioles likely would have offered right-hander Kevin Millwood a four-year deal worth about $40 million, but the team learned that he was getting a much bigger offer from the Texas Rangers.

"You can really make bad decisions and cripple the organization by pursuing second- or third-tier free agents," Duquette said of the club's overall philosophy. "We made a conscious effort [of] not getting caught up in long-term contracts with mediocre players. We were very selective in the guys we pursued.

"We don't want to win the offseason PR campaign. I've been a part of teams that have and ended up being flops. We're looking to compare ourselves to this point last year and I think we are better, for sure." jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Orioles' key dates

Wednesday: Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Thursday: Pitchers' and catchers' first workout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Feb. 21: First full-squad workout.

March 2: First exhibition game, vs. Florida Marlins, Fort Lauderdale Stadium, 1:05 p.m.

March 31: Exhibition game, vs. Washington Nationals, RFK Stadium, 7:05 p.m.

April 1: Exhibition game, vs. Washington Nationals, Camden Yards, 4:35 p.m.

April 3: Opening Day, vs. Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Camden Yards, 3:05 p.m.

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