Trade starts dominoes falling for O's
Baltimore nearing two-year contract with shortstop Izturis
LAS VEGAS -- The first domino fell for the Orioles on Tuesday at the Winter Meetings, and it erected a few other potential transactions to follow. Baltimore traded Ramon Hernandez to Cincinnati for a package headlined by Ryan Freel, necessitating the signing of another catcher and setting up shortstop as the team's top priority.
Andy MacPhail, Baltimore's president of baseball operations, acknowledged the catching vacancy early in his remarks to the media on Tuesday, and he also said his pursuit of two starting pitchers is still in an early stage. That leaves his quest for a starting shortstop as his next ambition, a signing that could take place in the next few days.
Several published reports have put the Orioles close to inking a two-year agreement with Cesar Izturis, and MacPhail didn't say anything to refute those rumors Tuesday. In fact, he came closer to confirming them.
"The shortstop, we think we made progress on. We're happy where we are," MacPhail said. "It will come as a surprise to nobody, starting pitching is something that will take the longest time or be the hardest to select."
That may be the case, but MacPhail began making inroads on that avenue Tuesday. The Orioles met with the representatives for Japanese free agents Koji Uehara and Kenshin Kawakami, two of their top targets. Both pitchers are making their first foray into big league action, and MacPhail said Baltimore will watch them closely.
"I think they were on fact-finding missions," said MacPhail of his introductory meetings. "And I think we were pretty direct in terms of the level of our interest so they can go on and sort of get everybody's pulse."
MacPhail credited John Stockstill, the team's director of international scouting, with getting a look at those pitchers and ascertaining what it will take to get them to sign on the dotted line. Many Japanese players receive perks in the form of round-trip airline tickets home and personal interpreters, and MacPhail said that won't be an issue.
"John Stockstill has done a good job explaining to me different responsibilities that accompany pitchers and players you get coming from Japan, what those things entail and what we have to do," MacPhail said. "We're prepared to do all of those things. I think their representatives need to get comfort in that area.
"We are probably further along in this market than I ever dreamed we would be. When we initiated this department and had John run it, we were on really a reconnaissance mission. We've already signed really two pitchers now from the 40-man roster [and are] having conversations that we weren't capable of having a year ago."
With Mark Pieper -- Uehara's agent -- in the room, MacPhail took the opportunity to discuss another crucial matter regarding his team. Pieper also represents second baseman Brian Roberts, and MacPhail said they briefly discussed the possibility of a contract extension and plan on revisiting that subject before the end of the week.
The Orioles didn't make any notable progress with prized free agents Mark Teixeira or A.J. Burnett on Tuesday, and MacPhail declined to comment on whether or not he met with their representatives. He did say, however, that the Hernandez trade opens up a spot for prospect Matt Wieters and for a veteran backup.
"It is, as I said, really something that's about the future, because I do think it's going to be tough to replace Ramon's offense in the short term," MacPhail said. "But eventually, we hope to get Matt there somewhere over the course of the '09 season. And that was going to create an uncomfortable circumstance for [manager] Dave [Trembley], so we thought, like my grandfather says, 'Sometimes better a year too early than a year too late.'"
The Orioles want Wieters to start the season at Triple-A Norfolk, but barring any injuries or unforeseen circumstances, they plan on feeding him big league experience at some point. MacPhail wants to find a veteran catcher -- either through trade or free agency -- who can keep the position warm and serve as a positive influence.
Former Oriole Gregg Zaun may fit that bill, but MacPhail declined to mention specific names Tuesday.
"The other thing that's important is we need to have someone that can mentor our young pitching and give them every chance to succeed," he said. "We think we have one potentially. But it's not going to give us the offense. They're not going to be household names or knock your socks off where you go, 'Ah, that's the guy.'"
With Hernandez traded and with Izturis nearing an agreement, MacPhail's free to concentrate on adding a catcher and fleshing out his starting rotation. The pitching market is said to revolve around Burnett and southpaw ace CC Sabathia, which means the Orioles may have to wait for them to set the market before they go shopping.
Greg Genske, the agent for pitcher Jon Garland, has noted that the Orioles are one of the teams interested in his client, but Genske acknowledged that they haven't met here at the Winter Meetings.
And if worse comes to worst, the Orioles may not even add multiple starters. Baltimore could use some veteran arms to staff the rotation, but it won't make big offers to players that don't merit one. MacPhail was asked if he needed to add two starters this offseason, and while he said it was a goal, he also said it wasn't a necessity.
"I don't know that I have to. I know that I would like to," he said. "When you get into a situation where you have to do something, that's really where you're liable to make a mistake. That's when you generally regret it a couple of months later. There are things that we felt we needed to do. One of them we've done, the second one we're satisfied with our progress to date. The third one, we knew it was going to be the longest and filled with the most variables."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.