O's plan to use restraint in filling holes

O's to use restraint in filling holes

BALTIMORE -- The Hot Stove season begins with the Orioles sitting on a tepid hand, determined to improve but not fully certain how to do it. Baltimore has all but renounced the need to go after marquee free agents this winter and will attempt to content itself with lower-wattage bullpen arms and perhaps a team-changing trade or two before Spring Training.

Baltimore won't lose much off last season's roster, as only center fielder Corey Patterson, backup catcher Paul Bako and injured starters Kris Benson and Jaret Wright qualified to file for free agency. The Orioles will be hurt more by injury, with relievers Chris Ray and Danys Baez out for most or all of the 2008 season after undergoing surgeries to repair their respective pitching elbows.

The Orioles, under new management and new leadership, are a team at a crossroads. They have the beginnings of a promising pitching staff paired with a middling batting order composed mostly of veterans, which means they'll have to be creative to improve. Under president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, standing pat isn't an option.

"I evaluate things one at a time -- one brick at a time," MacPhail said toward the end of the 2007 season. "If you think you're close, you'll make a move. If you think you're a distance away, you'll do things to try to improve your future. A lot of times, the players in the field will take you in one direction or another. ... I've been around enough to know that you can't anticipate the opportunities that become available to you. One domino's going to break one way, and this whole thing's going to follow."

One place of interest this winter will be center field, where Patterson departs after two seasons as the starter. Former All-Stars Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones headline the list of free agents, and Aaron Rowand should also get a lucrative contract. Meanwhile, the Orioles will likely seek to fill center field through a trade for a younger player.

Baltimore will be active again in the hunt for relief pitchers, but there should be a much different strategy employed this year. The Orioles spent more than $40 million on three relievers last winter but still wound up with the highest relief ERA in franchise history. Now, the plan is to bring in several low-cost arms and assemble a bullpen from spare parts.

Situational relievers Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker return from last year's spending spree, and manager Dave Trembley wants to see them used less often next year. Walker set the team record for appearances, and Trembley said that both Walker and Bradford can be much more effective if they have others around them pitching in defined roles.

"We are hoping and confident we can return those guys to the roles they were assigned to do -- and that's to situational pitch," Trembley said in September. "That's not to close games [and] not to pitch three days in a row.

Hot Stove

"In order to do that, we're going to have to get a bona fide closer and a setup guy. That's real simple, and the closer is going have to be a guy who has experience, can throw strikes and has the makeup to do that job."

There aren't many names on the free-agent list that meet those qualifications, and Baltimore isn't likely to get involved in a protracted bidding war for veteran relief aces like Mariano Rivera. Instead, the discoveries are likely to be much more subtle, and the Orioles may even take advantage of the Rule 5 Draft in an effort to provide as much competition as possible.

The key will likely be depth, something the Orioles were found wanting during the latter stages of last season. Baltimore's starting staff was afflicted with injuries from the start of Spring Training in 2007, but the team was stripped bare by September and had to plug waiver wire pickups Victor Santos and Victor Zambrano into a patchwork rotation.

Baltimore is hoping to build around arms like Erik Bedard and Adam Loewen, and it has second-line options like Hayden Penn and Garrett Olson ready to take a job if anyone falters in the big leagues. The same insurance would help in the bullpen, and it's something MacPhail will strive to fill during the three months left before Spring Training.

"It's pretty clear to see what happens in this division if you lose your front-line pitching," he's said of lessons learned from this season. "This is not a division -- or a league -- where subpar pitching is going to get the job done."

The Orioles are a team that has invested heavily in free agency in recent years, with lucrative contracts doled out to Miguel Tejada, Ramon Hernandez, Javy Lopez, Aubrey Huff and others in an effort to break out of fourth place. This year is likely to be about restraint and building patiently through younger players and the farm system, a plan that rarely inspires sexy headlines.

"To need Band-Aids is temporary -- I'm not looking to do that," said Trembley of an attempt to stock the roster with veteran stopgaps. "I think probably that's one of the things that's been done around here, and that doesn't get it done. We're looking to add quality, not quantity, and it's going to have to start with [starting] pitching and the bullpen."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.