The Baltimore Sun

Most baseball pundits had graded the Orioles' offseason long before learning that starting pitcher Kris Benson likely would have rotator cuff surgery, leaving an already unproven rotation without one of its most reliable arms.

The consensus was that the Orioles, one of the busiest teams this offseason, had improved but not nearly enough to challenge the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox or even the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.

"I don't pay a lot of attention to the critics who predict that we are going to be a fourth-place team," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said. "We have two options: We can play the games like we are supposed to or we can just listen to the prognosticators and accept our fourth-place season. I choose to play out the season and see where we get."

After finishing 70-92 a season ago and enduring the organization's ninth straight losing season, the front office wanted to overhaul the bullpen, acquire a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat for either first base or left field, try to land a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and upgrade the overall athleticism and flexibility of the club.

The Orioles added 10 free agents, with the latest one being veteran starter Steve Trachsel, who will compete to occupy the vacancy left by Benson. They also made three trades. After failing to sign one of the marquee free agents - the Orioles were priced out of the Alfonso Soriano market and were rebuffed in their effort to sign slugging outfielder Carlos Lee and pitcher Jason Schmidt - they decided to spread the money around and fill needs, in some cases by committee.

Here's a recap of the Orioles' five biggest offseason moves:

1. Added four relievers, signing right-handers Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson and left-hander Jamie Walker. The four contracts totaled about $42.4 million, and all but Williamson got three-year pacts.

At some point last season, Orioles executives tired of watching potential victories die in the middle to late innings in the hands of a brutal middle-relief corps, which figured prominently in the second-worst bullpen ERA (5.35) in the majors.

Wanting to take some pressure off their young starters and ease the burden on their 25-year-old closer, Chris Ray, who needed to pitch more than one inning entirely too often, the Orioles decided upgrading the bullpen was the main priority. And they spared no costs.

Even for a fourth-place team and even with the unpredictable nature of relievers, it's hard to dismiss the logic. If they secured even half of the 18 games they lost after leading or being tied in the late innings, they would have been only a couple of games away from that elusive .500 mark.

Did they grossly overpay for Baez and Walker? There's no question, and it's inevitable the Orioles will be regretting at least one of the three-year deals they handed out. Baez's contract (three years, $19 million) was particularly head-scratching because the former closer wasn't very good (4.53 ERA) last year.

But the submarine-style Bradford has given up only one homer in each of the past two seasons. (The Orioles bullpen surrendered a league-high 86 last year.) Walker held left-handers to a .238 average last year and is the matchup left-hander the Orioles never had last season.

2. Signed corner infielder and outfielder Aubrey Huff to a three-year, $19 million deal.

Huff is not Carlos Lee, and he's certainly not Alfonso Soriano. Even with his impressive numbers for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Huff does not come to the plate and paralyze pitchers with fear.

His home run and RBI totals have decreased every year since 2003, when he hit 34 homers and drove in 107 runs. The Orioles showed only tepid interest in Huff early, an indication they were shooting higher for that bat to protect cleanup hitter Miguel Tejada.

However, when Gary Sheffield was traded to Detroit and Soriano and Lee signed elsewhere, Huff became the Orioles' best option. And though the 30-year-old might not be as significant an offensive addition as the team had hoped for, he's an upgrade over what they had in left field last year.

One concern is Huff's limited defensive ability, and with Jay Gibbons expected to see many of the designated hitter at-bats, the Orioles won't be able to hide him.

3. Traded reliever Chris Britton to the New York Yankees for starter Jaret Wright.

When the Orioles agreed to the trade in November, they felt it was a no-brainer. Sure, Britton had a nice season last year, but Wright is a proven major league starter and the Yankees agreed to pay $4 million of the right-hander's $7 million salary in 2007.

If nothing else, he could be used as trade bait - the Orioles did discuss a Wright deal for first baseman Ben Broussard with the Seattle Mariners - or as a long reliever in the bullpen.

However, much has changed since the trade. The Orioles didn't make any other significant upgrades to their rotation, and Benson is now out. That leaves Wright, who went 11-7 with a 4.49 ERA for the Yankees last year, as the veteran anchor of the staff and perhaps its No. 3 or No. 4 starter.

Unless his reunion with pitching coach Leo Mazzone produces magic again - Wright won a career-best 15 games for the Atlanta Braves under Mazzone in 2004 - he might be miscast for the role, especially if he can't stay healthy.

4. Added right-handed pitcher Steve Trachsel with a one-year deal worth $3.1 million with club option for 2008.

After first learning of the severity of Benson's shoulder problems two weeks ago, the Orioles were left to choose from a pool of free agents that included Trachsel, Pedro Astacio, Mark Redman and Ron Villone.

They could have swung a trade, but Duquette felt they'd be patching a need by creating one, so Trachsel, whom the Orioles vice president knew well from their days in New York, got the call.

The Orioles have no visions of grandeur for Trachsel. They are also acutely aware pitching in Camden Yards and in the American League may not be the greatest fit for him. Trachsel, who was 15-8 last season with a 4.97 ERA but had two disastrous outings in the playoffs for the Mets, has given up 25 or more home runs in nine seasons.

Not only will Trachsel have to beat out prospect Hayden Penn for a spot in the rotation, but he also might be on a short leash if he gets there.

5. Signed outfielder Jay Payton to a two-year, $9.5 million deal.

Payton will bring the Orioles two things they have sorely lacked over the past couple of seasons - depth and attitude. His ability to play all three outfield spots will allow the Orioles to sit center fielder Corey Patterson against tough left-handers, an important option because he hit .207 against them last season.

Payton is solid defensively and reliable enough offensively that the Oakland Athletics had him hitting behind slugger Frank Thomas for much of last year. At his introductory Orioles news conference, he also discussed how he relished challenging the Yankees and Red Sox, whom he referred to as the two "Evil Empires." The Orioles clubhouse could use more of that attitude.

If he plays every day, Payton - who hasn't put up more than 13 home runs in a season since leaving Colorado in 2003 - likely wouldn't produce the kind of offensive numbers you'd like from a corner outfielder. He's better suited for being in the lineup about four, maybe five times a week.

Note -- Benson's agent, Gregg Clifton, said his client still will seek a third opinion on his sore right shoulder, but it hasn't been set up yet. "Our goal has always been ... [to] avoid surgery," Clifton said.

Sun reporter Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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