Looking to get some offense from the shortstop position, the Orioles have had trade discussions with the Tampa Bay Rays about Jason Bartlett and the Minnesota Twins about J.J. Hardy, according to club sources.
The talks with the Rays included discussion of a potential swap of Orioles reliever David Hernandez for Bartlett, who hit .254 with four homers and 47 RBIs in 2010 but is a career .281 hitter. However, that deal appears unlikely at this point as the Orioles are exploring other options.
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who is returning to Baltimore today from Orlando, Fla., where he attended both the owner and general manager meetings, wouldn't comment on specific players but acknowledged that he met with several teams this week to discuss potential trades, along with the representatives of several free agents.
"We've had some productive discussions," MacPhail said.
While the Orioles' search for a shortstop to bridge the gap to top prospect Manny Machado and provide more offense than Cesar Izturis is well-documented, the Rays are aggressively seeking affordable relievers because they could lose five members of their 2010 bullpen in free agency, including All-Star closer Rafael Soriano. Top setup man Joaquin Benoit has already signed with the Detroit Tigers.
Hernandez, a 25-year-old with closer-type stuff, went 8-8 with a 4.31 ERA in 41 appearances while serving in a variety of roles for the Orioles this past season. He started the season in the rotation, making eight starts, before ultimately settling in the bullpen. He even served as the team's closer at one point, saving three games.
Hernandez has been one of the Orioles' most discussed players in trade talks over the past two seasons, but the club has been reluctant to move him in a deal, and some in the organization would prefer to hold on to him, feeling that he could become the team's future closer.
However, Bartlett, 31, would give the Orioles a steady two-way shortstop who is just one year removed from a season in which he hit .320 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs and stole 30 bases.
Bartlett is available in trade talks because the Rays are cutting payroll and they have a younger and cheaper major league-ready shortstop in Reid Brignac. Also, Bartlett is eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, which has prompted some speculation that Tampa Bay could nontender him, though that appears to be an unlikely result.
The Rays are expected to make every effort to trade Bartlett, and there should be enough of a market with several teams potentially looking for a shortstop, including the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.
Like Bartlett, Hardy, 28, will be a free agent after the 2011 season. He batted .268 with six homers and 38 RBIs in 101 games for the Twins last season and is a career .263 hitter. His best season came with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007, when he batted .277 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs. His numbers have dropped each season since, and he's struggled to stay off the disabled list the past two years.
The Boston Red Sox's Marco Scutaro and the Arizona Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew are two other names who have been mentioned as possibly being available in trades, but it's unclear whether the Orioles have inquired about either.
Making a trade appears to be the best option because the free agent shortstop market is extremely weak beyond Derek Jeter, who is expected to re-sign with the New York Yankees, and veteran Orlando Cabrera.
Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a player whom the Orioles have scouted extensively, was posted by the Chiba Lotte Marines, though as of early this week one team source said the club was unlikely to bid, feeling the cost of winning the exclusive bidding rights, in addition to the player's contract demands, far exceed his worth.
Izturis, the Orioles' starting shortstop the past two seasons, is a free agent, and the club is still considering re-signing the former Gold Glove winner.
However, team officials are looking to upgrade the lineup in at least two positions, and Izturis is coming off a season in which he hit just .230 with a .277 on-base percentage and was one of the least effective offensive players in the game.
If the Orioles are able to find offensive upgrades at first and third base — and they maintain interest in Adrian Beltre, Paul Konerko, Carlos Pena and Victor Martinez, along with several other power-hitting corner infielders — it is more likely they'll bring back Izturis.
"Our first priority is we'd like to do something about the offense," MacPhail said. "We've looked at a variety of different positions where we think we can add to the offense and at what potential cost and what impact it will have for other positions."
Note: Pitcher Armando Gabino and first baseman Rhyne Hughes have cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A Norfolk. The moves leave the Orioles with 32 players on their 40-man roster. They're expected to add a couple of their prospects to their 40-man, including pitchers Zach Britton and Pedro Beato, and infielders Joe Mahoney and Ryan Adams, before Saturday's deadline to set the roster.