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Orioles look to continue to 'grow arms, buy bats' as they gear up for free agency

As Andy MacPhail watched the 2010 postseason unfold, the Orioles' president of baseball operations had a prevailing thought: If done right, his philosophy of "growing the arms and buying the bats" can lead to the ultimate prize.

The San Francisco Giants became 2010 world champions on the strength of four homegrown starting pitchers, a homegrown closer and a stitched-together offense that mostly was rescued from baseball's scrap heap.

"Grow the pitching. It's one of things we need to do well here," MacPhail said. "Look at the reigning world champions. That strategy has been successful in San Francisco, and it can be in Baltimore."

This offseason's free-agent period begins in earnest at 12:01 a.m. Sunday morning, when available players are free to talk contracts with all teams. The Orioles are expected at some point Sunday to contact the agents of their primary targets, but, as in years past, they likely won't begin serious free-agent negotiations until later in the offseason.

"Our philosophy hasn't changed," MacPhail said. "You may get a deal done early, but by and large, those deals usually occur if a player wanted to return to his former club and they are able to work out something prior to, or shortly after, free agency starts. Or those early deals are preemptive strikes by clubs where the player and the agent decide that they are not going to get better than this and they get it done quickly. We would be much more likely to do the former rather than the latter."

The Orioles have seven veterans from the 2010 squad who are free agents: infielders Cesar Izturis, Ty Wigginton and Julio Lugo, outfielder Corey Patterson and pitchers Koji Uehara, Kevin Millwood and Mark Hendrickson.

The Orioles' exclusive negotiating rights with those players expire Sunday morning, but the club can continue to talk with them afterward. The Orioles have legitimate interest in retaining Izturis, Wigginton and Uehara and, to a lesser extent, Patterson and Hendrickson.

"We have had conversations, which, obviously, are not really to be shared," MacPhail said. "We have had communication with some of that group, and, to me, it is interesting. You try to get a sense of where they are as well."

Re-signing players such as Wigginton, Uehara and Izturis is likely predicated on what MacPhail finds on the free-agent and trade markets. With the exception of the three big names headlining free agency — starting pitcher Cliff Lee and outfielders Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth — this year's class is viewed as particularly flawed.

"With a few exceptions, it's not a very good free-agent class," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I think you will see it get worse and worse as baseball evolves [in the next few years]. It's not going to be the solve-all-things [solution] some people think it is."

Yet Showalter and MacPhail believe there are some available players who can help the Orioles. The good news is that the club's biggest need, a power-hitting corner infielder, is the deepest subset available this winter.

The Orioles likely will focus on a group that includes first basemen Victor Martinez, Adam LaRoche, Derrek Lee, Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, Aubrey Huff and Lance Berkman. They'll also kick the tires on third baseman Adrian Beltre, who showed little interest in coming to Baltimore last offseason.

The Orioles could sign Berkman, Huff, LaRoche and Pena without surrendering draft picks. The other players in the group are considered Type A free agents and would cost the Orioles a 2011 second-round pick if they sign one who has been offered arbitration by his former club.

With a team that lost 96 games last season, there are plenty of other holes to fill. They Orioles would like to add a shortstop with defensive and offensive capabilities, but if they can't trade for one or find a match in an unimpressive free-agent group, they might re-sign the light-hitting Izturis.

The Orioles' wish list also includes a veteran starting pitcher to fill the role of innings-eater and staff mentor that Millwood held last year, as well as one or two relievers to fortify a bullpen that could lose Uehara.

But this is where MacPhail's "grow the arms" mantra takes hold. Since he joined the club in June 2007, the Orioles' largest free-agent contract was last offseason's two-year, $12 million deal to reliever Michael Gonzalez.

The Orioles haven't given more to a pitcher since the disastrous three-year, $22.5 million deal with Sidney Ponson before the 2004 season, which the club voided in 2005 because of off-field troubles (the sides eventually reached an undisclosed settlement).

Given that beyond Lee, there are no aces on the free-agent market — the class includes Carl Pavano, Jake Westbrook and Jon Garland, among others — MacPhail might again go the trade route, which he did last year by acquiring Millwood and his expiring contract from the Texas Rangers for reliever Chris Ray. Avoiding giving lucrative contracts to free-agent pitchers could be the trend throughout baseball this offseason.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there were more trade activity than is considered normal," MacPhail said.

The Giants' successful pitching blueprint could have nearly as much to do with that as the uninspiring free-agent options. All four of the Giants' starting pitchers this postseason were their draft picks: First-round selections Matt Cain (2002), Tim Lincecum (2006) and Madison Bumgarner (2007) and 27th-round choice Jonathan Sanchez (2004).

The Giants' big-money rotation purchase, Barry Zito, wasn't on the active postseason roster. In 2006, Zito signed a seven-year, $126 million deal that at the time was a record for a pitcher.

Recent history shows that expensive free-agent pitching contracts rarely pan out. So if the Orioles make a splash in free agency, it almost certainly will be with hitter.

And that, too, is far from a certainty.

"You don't just go picking in a fish tank; you have to have cooperation from both sides," Showalter said about free agency. "[Players] say it is not about the money, but it usually is about the money. So [opportunity] will present itself, we'll look at it and we'll go forward one way or another."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

twitter.com/danconnollysun

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