O's have tough choices; Dodgers primed to pounce

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

The imminent signing of right fielder Nick Markakis to a six-year contract is terrific news for the Orioles; Markakis, 25, will be the foundation of a youth movement that could help the franchise recover from 11 straight losing seasons.
The deal, however, only reinforces how badly the Orioles have blown it by waiting too long to move second baseman Brian Roberts, whose trade value has declined as he enters his free-agent year. The Orioles again have their "ears open" on Roberts, reflecting a change in their position over the past six months, according to one major-league source. Perhaps they can make a decent trade once free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson is off the market. Perhaps an opportunity will arise in spring training or in July. But the return will be less than the Orioles once could have had. Roberts, 31, will earn $8 million next season, then become a free agent. His salary is not unreasonable for a switch-hitter who bats leadoff and has averaged 42 stolen bases over the past three seasons. But few teams are willing to add payroll in a frightening economy, particularly when they would be assured of keeping Roberts for only one season. The Orioles have talked about signing Roberts long-term, but for them such a move would be a mistake. Roberts probably has peaked, and the O's need to collect as much young talent as possible. Even getting two high draft picks for Roberts as free-agent compensation would be better than giving him a bad contract. Will it come to that? Maybe not. The Orioles still might find a market for Roberts if they finally are willing to move him, which remains an open question. Roberts long has been a target of the Cubs, but his name did not surface in the recent discussions that led to the Felix Pie trade, sources said. The White Sox, another team that loves Roberts, do not appear in position to add an $8 million salary. General manager Ken Williams denied a recent report that he tried to acquire the Rangers' Michael Young to play second, but such discussions indeed took place, one source said. In that deal, money might have been less of a factor. The White Sox would have parted with right fielder Jermaine Dye, who is due $11.5 million, and possibly prized lefty Aaron Poreda. The Giants are another team that could stand to upgrade at second, and either Hudson or Roberts would be a fit. But the Giants might not even be willing to part with a second-round pick for signing Hudson, so it's doubtful they would move top young talent for Roberts. The Braves represent perhaps the most intriguing match for the Orioles — they nearly acquired Roberts two years ago and made another run at him last year. Roberts would fill the role they envisioned for Rafael Furcal, providing dynamic leadoff skills. Second baseman Kelly Johnson would move to the outfield. However, one source with knowledge of the Braves' thinking said the club would be reluctant to give up the necessary talent for Roberts and pay his salary. Instead, the Braves likely will wait for the price to drop on an outfielder, either in free agency or trade discussions. Two years ago, the Orioles had a chance to deal Roberts and pitcher Hayden Penn to the Braves for pitcher Tim Hudson and second baseman Marcus Giles, then for first baseman Adam LaRoche and Giles. Either deal might have been no better than a wash, though the O's potentially could have flipped Hudson for young talent. Last year, the Orioles could have dealt Roberts to the Cubs for a package that would have included shortstop Ronny Cedeno, right-hander Sean Gallagher, pitcher Jose Ceda and perhaps one or two others. But the teams never found a match. Gallagher, who later went to the A's in the Rich Harden trade, could have joined the Orioles' emerging core of young pitchers. Cedeno could have been their shortstop of the future, sparing them a two-year, $5 million investment in free agent Cesar Izturis this offseason. The maddening thing is, the Orioles are not without hope. Their top position prospect, catcher Matt Wieters, should arrive this season. Pie could join Markakis and center fielder Adam Jones to form an exciting young outfield. Righties Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta and lefty Brian Matusz eventually could be the nucleus of a fine rotation. A trade of Roberts still could add one or two names to that list, but the chances of the Orioles getting a significant return are far less than they were a year or two ago.

Cubs on O-Dog? Not Happening

If Roberts makes sense for the Cubs, then why not Hudson? The Cubs tried to trade for Hudson prior to signing Mark DeRosa in Nov. 2006. Tim Wilken, the team's director of amateur and professional scouting, remains a strong advocate — he held a similar position with Toronto when the Blue Jays selected Hudson in the 43rd round of the 1997 draft. The Cubs, however, are content with Mike Fontenot and Aaron Miles at second base; Fontenot, 28, has a batting average/on-base/slugging line of .290/.369/.457 in 549 career plate appearances. If the Cubs make another big move, it almost certainly will be a trade for Padres right-hander Jake Peavy. The addition of left-hander Garrett Olson in the Pie trade was not made specifically with the idea of loading up for Peavy, but as one source said, "it couldn't hurt." The Padres sought Olson in three-way discussions concerning Peavy earlier this offseason. The bottom line, however, is that the Cubs had no choice but to trade Pie, who is out of minor-league options and moved further down the team's depth chart with the additions of outfielders Milton Bradley and Joey Gathright. Olson, 25, could be the first lefty out of the Cubs' bullpen if Sean Marshall cracks the rotation, or he could start the season at Class AAA.

Dodgers: In Position to Pounce

With or without Manny Ramirez, the Dodgers are in an unusually flexible position. Their payroll is in the low $70 million range, according to internal projections, even when including the yet-to-be-determined salaries of the team's four arbitration-eligible players — pitcher Jonathon Broxton, catcher Russell Martin and outfielders Andre Ethier and Jason Repko. The signing of Ramirez would add between $20 million and $25 million. The team also is mining free agency for another starting pitcher and reliever, which could cost about $10 million. Even then, the Dodgers would be below their final 2008 payroll of $126 million — a figure that did not include Ramirez, third baseman Casey Blake and pitcher Greg Maddux, whose previous teams paid almost all of their salaries. If the Dodgers fail to sign Ramirez, they could turn to a more inexpensive free agent such as Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu. Or, they could simply start the season with an outfield of Ethier, Matt Kemp and Juan Pierre. Like many teams, the Dodgers believe that trade bargains will emerge if the economic crisis leads to declining attendance and financially strapped teams need to dump payroll.

Giants: Manny, a Trade or Both?

Depending upon whom you believe, the Giants are either heavily or barely in the mix for Ramirez. Meanwhile, the team continues to operate on a parallel track, pursuing trades for hitters as well. The Giants last week contacted the Brewers about acquiring one of their young position players, presumably first baseman Prince Fielder or outfielder Corey Hart, according to a major-league source. The conversation ended quickly when the Brewers responded that they would want a top-of-the-rotation starter in return. Left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, 26, appears to the pitcher that the Giants are most willing to trade for a hitter, but one such possibility — a deal for the Marlins' Jorge Cantu — remains stalled. The Marlins are reluctant to subtract Cantu's 29 homers and 95 RBIs when they've already parted with Mike Jacobs' 36 and 119. Cantu could end up at first base or third depending upon how the Marlins sort out their corner infielders this spring. The team wants to go with the best defender at third. Dallas McPherson, Gaby Sanchez and Chris Coghlan will get long looks at the position while Cantu plays for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. McPherson and Sanchez also could end up platooning at first.

Around the Horn

The Marlins have kicked around signing free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who was a major part of their World Series championship team in 2003. The issue, not surprisingly, is price. Rodriguez, 37, wants $3 million for one year, according to a major-league source. The rest of his market, however, is unclear. The Orioles no longer are interested now that they've signed Gregg Zaun for $1.5 million ... Martin, the Dodgers' catcher, told reporters last week that he is interested in a long-term deal, but at this point he only is engaged in one-year discussions with the club, according to his agent, Matt Colleran. The two sides could discuss a long-term contract after they exchange arbitration figures and move closer to a hearing . . . The Mariners and Brewers are among the teams interested in free-agent utility man Craig Counsell. The Brewers declined Counsell's $3.4 million team option, but could bring him back at a lesser salary. Counsell, 38, had a .355 on-base percentage in 302 plate appearances last season. He also drew interest from the Indians before the Tribe traded for Mark DeRosa ... The Mariners likely are willing to move right-hander Aaron Heilman, who they did not consider a key component of their six-player return in the J.J. Putz trade. Heilman, 30, is entering his second year of arbitration, and could make sense for one of the many teams looking for an affordable starting pitcher. The Mets used him as a reliever, but he prefers to start ... This is progress? As one GM notes, four players finished with 100 or more walks last season, but 88 had 100 or more strikeouts. It's not as if every member of the 100-strikeout club was a slugger, either. Twenty-seven of the 88 — more than 25 percent — failed to hit 20 home runs. Among that group: The Astros' Michael Bourn (five homers); Twins' Carlos Gomez (seven) and Padres' Chase Headley (nine homers and 104 strikeouts in 331 at-bats).
Tagged: Orioles, White Sox, Indians, Royals, Brewers, Twins, Athletics, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays, Braves, Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, Mets, Pirates, Padres, Giants, Marlins, Brian Roberts, Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake, Tim Hudson, Ivan Rodriguez, Michael Young, Cesar Izturis, Mark DeRosa, Rafael Furcal, Adam Dunn, Milton Bradley, Bobby Abreu, Craig Counsell, Orlando Hudson, Aaron Heilman, Rich Harden, J.J. Putz, Aaron Miles, Adam LaRoche, Corey Hart, Dallas McPherson, Jorge Cantu, Mike Fontenot, Prince Fielder, Ronny Cedeno, Kelly Johnson, Mike Jacobs, Russell Martin, Felix Pie, Nick Markakis, Andre Ethier, Sean Marshall, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Kemp, Adam Jones, Michael Bourn, Garrett Olson, Carlos Gomez, Chase Headley, Gaby Sanchez, Matt Wieters

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