As if the Orioles didn't have enough to worry about -- playing in the same division with the Red Sox and Yankees, the teams with the largest payrolls in baseball -- now they have to deal with more competition, this time from the south. Their new neighbors are the Nationals, and they reside only 50 miles from Camden Yards, which, in baseball, is next door.
It is a potentially damaging situation for the Orioles, but for now, from a baseball standpoint, they are proceeding "on the same course,'' said Baltimore general manager Jim Beattie. "We're not saying 'we've really got to do this, we really have to do that.' The marketing side is affected differently. But the baseball side will operate the same way.''
Which means, expect the Orioles to be aggressive this winter in the free agent market. Last year, they signed free agent shortstop Miguel Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who greatly upgraded the offense, and made the Orioles much more interesting to watch. They're looking for another productive hitter to play right field or first base, but mostly, they need a proven starting pitching.
"With (Sidney) Ponson, Rodrigo (Lopez), (Daniel) Cabrera, (Erik) Bedard and (Kurt) Ainsworth coming back, we have seven or eight starting pitchers. Now we're looking for a little more of a front of the rotation guy,'' Beattie said.
Their main interest lies in Carl Pavano, one of the premier starting pitchers on the market; Sunday, Pavano will have dinner with Beattie. The Orioles also have interest in several other free-agent starters, including Derek Lowe and Eric Milton, who attended the University of Maryland. The Orioles placed Ponson on the top of what was a very young rotation last year, and it didn't work, which partially explained them winning only 78 games.
"We have slots to fill,'' Beattie said. "We don't have the same amount of money that we went into last year with. The money we have, we can sign one or two players if we do it wisely.''
As for hitters, the names of Carlos Delgado and Magglio Ordonez have been mentioned, but as of Tuesday, the Orioles had not spoken directly with Ordonez's agent, Scott Boras. If the Orioles sign a right fielder, Palmeiro would play some first base, but Lopez likely will play 50-60 games there; the Orioles are trying to keep his games caught to 100 to 110. They're also looking for a backup catcher. They also have trade possibilities at second base. Brian Roberts hit 50 doubles last year, and Jerry Hairston, despite injuries, batted .303. They have depth at second base in the minor leagues with Mike Fontenot at Triple-A.
The Orioles have to improve their club in order to compete in their division, but also because of the arrival of the Nationals, who have been more active than the Orioles (and most every team) this offseason. They've signed third baseman Vinny Castilla, shortstop Cristian Guzman and catcher Gary Bennett, and traded for outfielder Jose Guillen. The Nationals are attempting to sign a front-line pitcher -- they've made an offer for free agent Odalis Perez -- but that might be the extent of the money they have available to spend this winter.
"After this year, the Orioles had better watch out,'' said one major league executive. "That could be a gold mine in Washington. They've sold 15,000 season tickets. Their revenues will be up $100 million this year. This may be their last year as a small-market team.''
If the new owners in Washington are intent on making the Nationals a first-class organization -- and there's every indication of that from at least one of the 10-20 potential buyers -- significant improvement could come very quickly. On Tuesday, the D.C. City Council granted preliminary approval for a publicly funded ballpark to be built at a cost of roughly $500 million in southeast D.C. If final approval comes later this month, as expected, and other roadblocks are avoided, the Nationals would have a new ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront in place for the 2008 season.
A thriving, healthy franchise in Washington could hurt the Orioles, but only if the Orioles are a non-competitive team. Remember, when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, it was partly the doing of Senators owner Calvin Griffith, who felt a natural rivalry would be good for his team. When the Senators left for Texas in 1971, one of two dissenting votes came from Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger, who also felt that having a team close to his would help his club.
The Baltimore-Washington area is huge -- way bigger than it was in 1971 -- so there is room for both teams for thrive. Fans can still go to Orioles games to see American League teams, but now have the option to go to RFK Stadium to see National League games. The Orioles can prevent being hurt by continuing to grow as an organization through their farm system, free agency and trades. And this winter is another big one for them to continue that growth. "I think they have a chance to sign Delgado and Pavano,'' one GM said.
The Orioles need both of them not just to compete with the Nationals, but more important, with the Red Sox and Yankees.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.