BALTIMORE -- Even rebuilding teams lose a few blocks from time to time.
The Orioles are heading into the 2009 season with a long-range vision in mind, but five of their veterans will admittedly have a more short-sighted goal. Brian Roberts, Aubrey Huff and three other prominent players will be entering the final seasons of their contracts with Baltimore and could feel a tendency to press in a dismal financial market.
Relievers Jamie Walker and Danys Baez are also in that group, and third baseman Melvin Mora could find himself there if the team doesn't pick up his option for the 2010 season. Without looking too far ahead, Baltimore could wind up shedding its two longest-serving players -- Roberts and Mora -- without getting much compensation in return.
Roberts, who has been with the club since the 2001 season, is also the Oriole most likely to sign an extension. Andy MacPhail, Baltimore's president of baseball operations, has acknowledged the fact that he'd like to retain Roberts, but the existing financial market and the team's place in the standings may complicate that effort.
At the moment, Roberts may be waiting on the specific case of Orlando Hudson, a highly comparable second baseman who is having a tough time finding a job on the open market. But Roberts has also said that he doesn't want to negotiate during the season, giving the Orioles a seven-week window in Spring Training to try to get something done.
MacPhail, for his part, knows how important it is to retain his best players. The executive recently signed right fielder Nick Markakis to a lucrative six-year contract extension, and moments after completing it, MacPhail was asked if he was any closer on Roberts. MacPhail fell somewhat short of an emphatic answer but did his best to respond.
"We've made no secret of the fact that we'd love to have Brian come back," MacPhail said last month. "We're still working on it. The market hasn't completely played itself out yet. Hopefully we can get something done."
Roberts, a two-time All-Star, has been in this position before. The 32-year-old leadoff man delayed his first shot at free agency by a year with his last contract, a two-year extension worth more than $14 million. Roberts is reportedly looking for a four-year extension this time, while the Orioles have apparently offered three years for $30 million.
Mora, meanwhile, has a much more cut-and-dried situation. The veteran found himself with an unexpected career renaissance last season, saving what had been a dubious contract extension to that point. Now, Mora just has to repeat his success. If he's able to do that at age 37, he'll give the Orioles an interesting dilemma.
Baltimore, which doesn't have a rising third-base prospect to consider, would have to weigh whether Mora is worth $8 million for the 2010 or whether it would rather pay him a $1 million buyout. Roberts may also play into that decision, because if he signs, the Orioles could just slide Ty Wigginton over to third base in Mora's absence.
When it comes to Huff, the Orioles don't have to worry about alienating the fan base. The designated hitter-turned-first baseman has played for Baltimore for just two seasons, albeit one of them of the career-year variety. Huff won the American League's Silver Slugger Award at DH last year, more than justifying his signing before the 2007 season.
But which Huff is the real Huff? The slugger batted .280 with 15 home runs for Baltimore in 2007, and then he turned around to hit .304 with 32 home runs last season. Huff slugged .442 in '07 and .552 in '08, and that latter mark just narrowly missed his career high (.555) set back in '03, when he was regarded as a potentially elite hitter.
And if he has another year like he did in 2008, Huff may be in line for a huge contract on the free-agent market. Given his huge swings in performance over the past few years, Baltimore is unlikely to take a big risk by offering him a big-dollar contract, making Huff a likely candidate to be shopped at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in late July.
As for Baez and Walker, both arms are at a career crossroads. The Orioles inked both as part of a $42 million bullpen overhaul after the 2006 season, an expenditure that couldn't save the team from the highest relief ERA (5.71) in franchise history. Neither Walker nor Baez was able to erase that memory last season due to injury and inefficiency.
And this year, they'll simply be fighting for another contract, let alone another with Baltimore. Walker struggled with a sore elbow and had difficulty retiring southpaw batters last season, and Baez missed the entire year while recovering from ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow. Now he has to prove that he's healthy and can still be effective.