Orioles look to muscle up

The 2002 Orioles led the American League in singles, which would be fine if this were 1973, but this era is dominated by home runs, and they're short on power. There is, however, good news in Baltimore. The Orioles aren't carrying only singles this winter, they've got a roll of big bills and, unlike most major-league teams, they're in a position to spend.

Finally, the Orioles have funds to deal with now that they're done with the contracts of, among others, Albert Belle, Scott Erickson, Tony Batista, and Brook Fordyce. Roughly $30 million has been cleared, leaving approximately $40 million that can be spent to get to the estimated payroll of $75 million. A few years ago, $40 million couldn't buy much in free agency, but things have changed since the A-Rod/Manny winter of 1999. Prices have dropped. The Orioles are in a position to add perhaps three key players, through free agency. They will need at least two players to end their six-year run of fourth-place finishes.

It begins with the best free agent available, Vladimir Guerrero. He is 27, he has five, 100-RBI seasons, five seasons of at least 34 home runs, a career average of .323, a great throwing arm and a reputation for playing hard. He has a good relationship with Orioles co-general manager Jim Beattie, who was the GM in Montreal when Guerrero was there. Guerrero doesn't speak English very well and, those who know him best, say he needs the support and nurturing from a mid-market city such as Baltimore, not a high-pressure situation such as New York. Still, the Yankees are expected to make a run at signing Guerrero.

The Orioles need a big bat for a team that hit 38 fewer home runs than the Blue Jays, 78 fewer than the Yankees and 86 fewer than the Red Sox. Guerrero would be a perfect fit in right field, and would allow Jay Gibbons to play somewhere else in the outfield, first base or DH. The Orioles need an exciting player who can bring fans to the park. Guerrero is that.

The Orioles need a shortstop (Deivi Cruz drove in 65 runs, but had 13 walks in 548 at-bats). There are several available through free agency, including Miguel Tejada, Japanese star Kaz Matsui and Rich Aurilia. Tejada is what they need most, a middle-of-the-order hitter who puts the ball in play and hits for power; Camden Yards, with its short alley in left center, would be appetizing for Tejada. He will, however, be pursued by several teams.

The Orioles also need a catcher. They passed last winter on free agent Pudge Rodriguez when the price got too high, but Rodriguez is a free agent again. So is Javy Lopez, who set a major-league record last season for most home runs hit by a catcher -- his swing also is tailored to Camden Yards. If either one of them is too expensive, the Orioles might be in a position to make a trade for a catcher, ideally one who can provide offense. The Mets' Mike Piazza seems like a logical fit, but trading for him will cost a lot.

The Orioles need a pitcher to top their rotation. Sidney Ponson was their best pitcher for the first half of last year, but he was dealt to the Giants before the July 31 deadline for three pitchers, including Kurt Ainsworth and Damian Moss. Ponson wanted to stay in Baltimore, but turned down a three-year offer. It's possible that he could re-sign with the Orioles, and join Rodrigo Lopez, Jason Johnson (if he's tendered a contract), Moss (if he's tendered) and Ainsworth in a rotation with potential, but needs an ace at the front.

Will free agents want to sign in Baltimore? A few years ago, the Orioles tried to lure several prominent players, including Juan Gonzalez, but were consistently rejected. Syd Thrift, then the GM, said it was as if the Orioles were "using Confederate money.'' Those days have also changed. Beattie and co-general manager Mike Flanagan are former major-leaguers with good reputations for their knowledge and ability. They have made significant changes within the organization to try to return to the so-called "Oriole Way,'' which is, basically, doing things right. They have allowed their minor-league managers and instructors to teach. Monthly awards are given to minor-league players to keep them motivated. Each player drafted by Baltimore is given an Oriole watch, a way of saying "welcome.''

Now they'd like to welcome a few new players from the ranks of free agency. Guerrero, Tejada, Rodriguez, Lopez, Ponson, Kevin Millwood ... those are a few of what is a very strong class. The Orioles have been burned by bad contracts given to free agents (Belle), but the new regime won't drop all that they have for one guy. The time has come for the Orioles to do something major. And they need more than a singles hitter or a single player.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.