Percy, Easton: Everyone understands what the Orioles needs are, but realistically, what does your magic 8 ball say the most likely free agent additions the Orioles will be making this offseason?
Dan Connolly: I'm sure my Magic 8 Ball is a little less optimistic than the one held by Mike Flanagan and crew. I think the organization has put itself behind the proverbial 8 ball with 8 losing seasons and a disaster of a 2005 campaign. I think the club will have to grossly overpay to lure the top free agents here, and I don't think the Orioles are willing - or should be willing, honestly - to do that at this point. If this team inked Paul Konerko, Kevin Millwood, A.J. Burnett, Ramon Hernandez, Brian Giles and B.J. Ryan they'd fill all of their holes and be legitimate playoff contenders. But I don't see any of those six signing here, mainly because they are in high demand and likely will choose a more proven winner. Signing one would be a successful offseason.
Paul Byrd, a lower-tier closer such as Todd Jones or Ugueth Urbina (stop-gaps for Chris Ray) and maybe a catcher such as Brad Ausmus. But at least they are additions. And I do expect the Orioles to make a trade for a hitter (the free-agent class is rather weak) such as a Mike Cameron or a Juan Pierre. Again, my Magic 8 is a little more clouded than the ones used by the guys making the decisions.
Ray, Glen Allen, Va.: Dan, I think the acquisition of Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone could be one of the biggest moves the O's have ever made. What's your take on it?
Dan Connolly: If signing a pitching coach is one of the organization's best moves ever, that speaks volumes - and not necessarily about the pitching coach. I think it is a good, positive move, certainly an impressive one since the Yankees were sniffing around Rockin' Leo as well. But, in the past, this organization has made plenty of great moves, so I am not sure this is a Top Fiver; we just haven't seen many recently.
Mazzone's track record is unparalleled, but he won't have any success unless his pitchers are willing to buy into his program. And that's up to Bedard, Cabrera, etc. None of the current Orioles pitchers (with the exception of Bruce Chen) knows Mazzone, and he's going to have an uphill battle working with some of them. Remember, Ray Miller and Mark Wiley (no matter what some fans might think) are well-respected pitching coaches and their impact as a whole is arguable. I expect Mazzone to reach some of the young pitchers and help develop them, and that would be great. But let's not assume this team automatically leads the league in ERA just because Mazzone is here.
Tim, Suffolk, Va.: Knowing how likely it is that the Orioles are going to lose B.J. Ryan to free agency, why wasn't there a push to trade him last July?
Dan Connolly: Simply put, because during most of last July, the team was in the pennant race and didn't want to send a message to fans it was giving up. Most of that month was spent trying to improve the club, not selling off an all-star. And I think that was the right path. Once they couldn't get a deal done, and the Orioles fell into a terrible run, the organization began discussing Ryan with other clubs, but they didn't have much time left and didn't want to rush through such an important deal. I have little problem with that.
The real question is why didn't the Orioles sign him in March when they could have gotten him for nearly half of what he'll get now? The Orioles could have signed Ryan for three years/ $15 million. But he wasn't a closer yet. They offered three years and around $10 million. The gap was never closed and now B.J. could bring in four years, $28 million or more, depending on the bidding war.
Kevin, Seymour, Conn.: The free agent market looks very thin for pitching help. I would like to see the O's bring up some minor league prospects rather than make a move for the sake of making a move. Steve Reed and Steve Kline are proof of this. Who are the best bets for pitching help that can be promoted for 2006?
Dan Connolly: We've seen some of them already, Kevin. Future closer Chris Ray looks like he is in the big leagues to stay. Hayden Penn, who just turned 21 in October, projects as a top of the rotation starter and I'd be surprised if he wasn't a mainstay of the rotation by the middle of next season. He was spotty in his big-league promotion in 2005, but he showed enough promise to excite the organization. John Maine could help at the back of the rotation and the organization's 2005 pitcher of the year, big right-hander James "J.J." Johnson, 22, likely will start at Double-A Bowie and could make his way to the Orioles with a strong performances.
A lot of the Orioles best young pitchers are likely more than a season away (Garrett Olson, Radhames Liz, Brandon Erbe). One guy to watch is Adam Loewen, who has had a frustratingly inconsistent minor-league career. But one scout told me recently that Loewen, a 6-foot-5 lefty who was the fourth overall pick in 2002, was the most impressive and polished pitcher in the Arizona Fall League - and that's an accomplishment. He could make his debut in 2006.
Kevin, Chalfont, Pa.: I think Kevin Millwood is a good fit for the O's this offseason now that Leo Mazzone is in town. What kind of contract do you think he'll demand, and what do you think the odds are that the O's would go after him?
Dan Connolly: Scott Boras. Scott Boras. Scott Boras. Enough said. Millwood had to settle for a one-year contract last year and now he is probably the most coveted free-agent starter. Yes, A.J. Burnett is younger and has better stuff, but he has some baggage that will scare some teams. Millwood has leadership and experience on his side and is taking a dazzling AL ERA into free agency. Boras, baseball's superagent, wins again. Expect a four-year deal that begins at least with a 3. It's impossible to predict the market this early, but he'll get more than the Orioles - and most clubs - want to spend.
Chuck, Washington, D.C.: Will Tripper Johnson or Brandon Fahey be used as trade bait for the O's? They are two quality players. Also where do you project Daigle - the minor league free agent just signed - playing? Ottawa? Bowie?
Dan Connolly: I think any of the Orioles' prospects will be used as trade bait if the deal is right. The exception there is Nick Markakis, the young outfielder that everyone seems to agree is a special talent. The Orioles have a lot more depth in their pitching ranks, and so they are most likely to go there if they deal prospects. Johnson doesn't have the same can't-miss label as he once did, and Fahey may be more of a utility infielder type when he gets to the big leagues, so it's unlikely either will be the centerpiece of any significant trade.
With Miguel Tejada signed through 2009, Fahey is more expendable. Leo Daigle, a power-hitting first baseman who won the Carolina League MVP and Triple Crown for the White Sox organization, is an intriguing pickup for an Orioles system that has little minor-league power. But Daigle did his damage as a 25-year-old in Single-A and struggled at the plate in a Triple-A promotion. Although the determinations aren't made until spring training, my guess is he'd start at Bowie.
Chris, Hartford, Conn.: Any resolution regarding Sidney Ponson's contract being voided and the grievance he filed? Seems like this thing is really dragging out.
Dan Connolly: You ain't seen nothing yet. November was the earliest projection on this case. We're hearing it probably won't be resolved until sometime into 2006. Once it gets to an arbiter it takes another six weeks or so for a ruling. All we know for sure is that Ponson won't be back with the Orioles in 2006 and Peter Angelos believes he has a good case to recoup the money, even though voiding a contract is historically difficult to do.
Oznog, Severna Park: How is Brian Roberts' recovery going? Is he still on track to play at the beginning of the season next year?
Dan Connolly: There have been no reported setbacks, but nothing can or will be determined until he begins baseball-related activities in the spring. Swinging a bat is one thing, swinging it against 95-mph fastballs is something else. Same for playing catch versus making a tough pivot throw. If anybody will work hard enough to return to form, though, it is Roberts.
Pat, Manchester, UK: In my opinion the game of baseball needs instant replay. The umpires make too many wrong calls that can change the outcome of games. Would this be better or worse for the game?
Dan Connolly: I think worse. We all want to be accurate - yes, even journalists. But the game is slow as it is. Inserting instant replay into baseball could extend a game that already often takes three hours. And what we'll find is that the umpires got most of the calls right anyway. Baseball, more so than most sports, is about past triumphs and heartaches. Goats are forever part of the lore and I think it's OK when an umpire (Denkinger, Garcia, Eddings) is occasionally lumped in there. Really, managers will tell you that they are most frustrated by balls-strikes inconsistency not calls at bases. And there's no way to fix that with the exception of computerizing the strike zone. And that gives me shudders.