In winter, O's need to turn up heat on Yankees and Red Sox

If the Orioles truly want to be competitive in the American League East, it's time to hit the Yankees and Red Sox where it will hurt the most.

In the winter.

The free agent market is going to open for business in a couple of weeks and the Orioles need to serve notice right away that they want to be in on Cliff Lee. They need to be prepared to make a huge offer for the best pitcher available and send a message to the rest of the division that they are in this thing for the long haul.

That probably sounds crazy to a lot of people, including Andy MacPhail, because the chances of signing Lee or anyone else considered to be the cream of the free agent crop figure to be slim, but that's not really the point.

Even if the Orioles are not considered serious contenders for the most serious free agents, the time has come to turn up the heat on the big-spending teams and — if nothing else — force them to spend even more to maintain their economic dominance over the division.

Remember the Mark Teixeira situation? The Orioles made a legitimate first offer to lure him back home, but were told by agent Scott Boras not to improve their $140 million proposal because Teixeira was not interested in joining their rebuilding movement. So, MacPhail quietly backed away because there was no point to staying in the bidding. Made sense at the time.

In hindsight, however, it would have made more sense to keep bidding and force the Yankees to spend an extra $30 million on that long-term deal. It might not have made a big dent in their huge budget back then, but if it happens enough, it eventually will have an impact on their irritating ability to pick up anybody they want at crunch time.

And who knows? Maybe Lee is really enjoying his opportunity to lift the Texas Rangers to new heights and might be open to doing the same thing in Baltimore. The only way to find out is to make an all-out run at him and see what happens.

The Tampa Bay Rays proved a couple of years ago — and again this season — that it is possible to overcome a huge economic disadvantage to rise to the top of the American League East, but they didn't have any choice. The Orioles can continue to try and do it the same way, but they do have the resources to dynamically back up their pitching youth movement right as it is starting to bloom.

Of course, they would have be throw $10 million or more on top of the best Yankees offer, but after drawing an all-time low 1.73 million fans to Camden Yards this past season (24th among the 30 major league franchises), they might want to consider it.

We can only hope that Peter Angelos watched the American League Championship Series and recognized the possibilities. Lee only beat the Yankees once, but his impact on the Rangers rotation over the past few months was obvious and his mere presence on the team — waiting in the wings for a possible Game 7 — had to be a major psychological advantage.

Now that both the Rays and the Rangers have shown how the mighty can fall, it's time for the Orioles to help prevent the Yankees and Red Sox from getting up. No one imagines that they have enough revenue to match the Yankees dollar-for-dollar in the payroll department, but they really don't have to.

What they have to do is show they have the will to take the fight wherever it presents itself. They have to be willing to compete for the best players in the international market, the trade market and the free agent market. They have to make the other teams in the division work harder to improve themselves.

Will they get Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth or the best Japanese player available? Probably not. But they need to keep open the possibility, because they do have the resources if the opportunity presents itself, and they proved over the final two months of the 2010 season that competing in the AL East is no longer an impossible dream.

They just have to show this winter that they really want to. Even if they end up settling for less, they will be better positioned to compete for the top players a year from now.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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