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December 15, 2003
New Orleans (BP) - It was almost the greatest single-day performance in winter meetings history.
Toward the end of a relatively quiet Sunday of minor deals and signings, word began to spread that the Baltimore Orioles were going to sign Miguel Tejada to a six-year deal. That wasn't entirely unexpected; Tejada had a limited number of suitors, and the Orioles were the wealthiest of the bunch. After being rumored at just about every number in a range of 20, the deal came in at an eye-popping $72 million. As with Mike Cameron, a late flurry of activity had been very profitable for the player.
What was unexpected was the rumors that came attached to the deal. Not only were the O's signing Tejada, but they were also ready to announce that he'd be playing with Ivan Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero. That's right; the Baltimore Orioles were coming back with a vengeance, prepared to commit close to $200 million to the three best players left unsigned in an effort to return to relevance in the AL East and return crowds to Camden Yards.
There's something about the lobby of the hotel when a story like this emerges at the meetings. Every other person has a cell phone pressed to their ear, and any new interaction begins with the question, "Heard anything?" I bought a bottle of water from the hotel bar--the hub of activity--and had to turn over the latest rumor with my cash. Hopefully, Shelby used the information well.
As you probably know, only Tejada is an Oriole this morning. The other two free agents remain free, or as free as two guys likely to make $24 million combined next year can be. If money is the only object, it seems certain that the O's will get their men; few other teams are spending this winter, and the obvious ones, like the Yankees and Red Sox, are set at the positions those two play. If other factors come into play, however, there's no telling what might happen.
As far as the Tejada signing goes, I liken it to the Mets' moves of the last week. It makes the Orioles better, but not nearly good enough. I suppose the best indicator was that, having been spotted three potential starters, a group of people that included a couple of BPers, a couple of execs and some other writers struggled to piece together a lineup, rotation and bullpen. The Orioles have one of the more unexciting talent collections in the league, and their competition is tough to beat.
Tejada himself isn't the problem. I don't know if I like the last two years of the deal, but he's been perhaps the most consistent player in baseball over the past four years. His 2003 performance, perceived to be a disappointment, was largely the same as his MVP season in 2002, save for some extra singles--and well-remembered highlights--that earned him the hardware. He's durable, his plate discipline indicators have been going in the right direction for years, and he's 34-for-41 stealing bases since 2000. The only guy on the market who's less risky is Guerrero.
Maybe the two will hit back-to-back.
This morning, the Rule 5 draft takes place. While last year talk of the draft was everywhere, it seems to be less so this time around. The pool of talent isn't as deep, and more teams have addressed needs with minor deals and signings. I think we'll see fewer players selected than the 28 that went in the major-league phase of the 2002 draft, although the usual number of players, less than a dozen, will survive to Opening Day.
Last year's draft produced some decent relievers. Aquilino Lopez was effective in Toronto, the Rockies acquired Javier Lopez in spring training from the Red Sox, and he was a surprise in their bullpen. The Tigers got intermittently good work from Matt Roney and Wil Ledezma, as did the Expos from Luis Ayala.
This year, there's a lack of guys who are ready to step in and contribute, which is the biggest reason for the lack of interest. There are two types of players, generally speaking, who go in the Rule 5: cheap, short-term pitching and bench help, and upside guys who haven't performed well enough to hold their 40-man roster spot. The former is lacking this year, and while there are a number of players who fit from the latter group, it's hard to keep a player on the roster all season who hasn't made the jump to Double-A yet. I think the Pirates' Chris Shelton is an interesting prospect, but he's never hit a home run in a double-decked park.
With that said, some of the players who could get an opportunity through the draft this year include Shelton and fellow Pirates prospect Jose Bautista. The Reds' Ty Howington, a former #1 pick, has had health problems that kept him off the roster this winter. Someone will take a flyer. Diamondbacks catcher Craig Ansman can hit, although his Double-A numbers are inflated by context. The Jays will likely lose at least one toolsy outfielder, either Miguel Negron or Ty Godwin. Someone will spec on the Rangers' Andy Fox (signed to a minor league deal this off-season from Florida) as a utility infielder.
The pitchers who might get picked and be the 2004 version of various Lopezes include the Braves' Ray Aguilar, the Red Sox' Josh Stevens, the Orioles' Aaron Rakers and, once again, the Braves' Buddy Hernandez.
My travel schedule may keep me from writing for Tuesday. If it does, I'll have a complete wrap-up of the meetings later this week.