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O's open window for three years

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- -- If you, like the Orioles, are looking for a fresh start, it might be psychologically beneficial to view the next three years as the baseball equivalent of one of those windows of opportunity that open up for NFL teams with a lot of room under the salary cap.

The Orioles are close to a deal to extend Brian Roberts' contract through the 2009 season. Melvin Mora's contract extension, signed last May, also runs through 2009. Aubrey Huff signed a three-year deal in January. Top young pitcher Erik Bedard has three more seasons before he will be eligible for free agency.

So, if it appears that the front office is targeting 2009 as the year when the long-struggling Orioles must reach their full potential, appearances are not deceiving.

Perhaps you noticed that Miguel Tejada was not among the aforementioned class of 2009, but that was no oversight. Tejada's six-year contract also runs out in 2009, which isn't a coincidence.

Executive vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan confirmed that Tejada is the hub in this wheel of future fortune.

"A lot of the contracts are built around Tejada," he said yesterday.

Not all of them. There is some happenstance involved, though a conspiracy theorist would find it hard not to see the pattern.

"Some of that is by design," vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette said. "Some of it is only coincidence that so many [contracts] expire the same year. I don't think it's a situation where we hope to win in three years and then start over again. We hope to have the continuity to build on what we've done."

That doesn't mean that the Orioles aren't trying to win this year, but it does mean they're working within a definable set of parameters that will give fans the ability to gauge the organization's long-term progress, or lack of it.

It also means that the current front office has the opportunity to be judged on its merits, instead of continuing to drag those nine straight losing seasons around like the chains on Marley's ghost.

Of course, no one is under any obligation to go along with this line of thinking, not after hearing several times in the recent past about some "plan" that would return the franchise to respectability. But there still is a core of die-hard Orioles fans willing to gut this thing out for a couple more years to see what's what.

Maybe it won't take that long. Maybe Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera are ready to pop, which would give the Orioles the nucleus of young pitching talent to turn the corner in a hurry.

That still might not be enough to overtake the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but it would create the kind of real hope that would return some excitement to Camden Yards.

The Orioles cannot afford to wait two years for the fans to get back on board.

Attendance fell to 2.15 million last season, so they have to show significant progress this year to stop the bleeding and create some organizational momentum.

Manager Sam Perlozzo knows that, which is one of the reasons he has no time to concern himself with the long-term view.

"I don't look that far down the road," he said. "Our main goal is right now. Winning will take care of all of that. Our focus has to be on this year. I can't be worried about then."

The fact that the nucleus of the team might only be together through 2009 not only establishes a clear timetable for major league success, but it also sets a soft deadline for the player development side to improve the organization's position depth.

The current imbalance between pitching and position depth may be the biggest threat to sustained improvement in the competitiveness of the franchise.

In a perfect world, the Orioles will be a strong contender by 2009 and the minor league system will be ready to insert solid position players into the lineup when those big contracts run out.

If that doesn't happen, they may have to hire a capologist.

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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