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Boog Sciambi

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As if blowing a ninth-inning lead in a crushing loss to the Twins wasn't hard enough for the Baltimore Orioles, the news off the field Tuesday was equally frustrating.


Baltimore's potential trade for Florida Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett seemed in danger of falling apart.


Orioles officials described several key sticking points, and Burnett made his scheduled start for the Marlins at Arizona, indicating the sides weren't close to an agreement.


In a proposed deal that had the potential to affect the Twins in the American League wild-card race, the Marlins were prepared to give Burnett and third baseman Mike Lowell to the Orioles in exchange for left fielder Admin Bigbie, reliever Jorge Julio and pitching prospect Hayden Penn.


So far, the major deal breaker for the Orioles has been the $21.5 million still remaining on Lowell's contract, which runs through 2007.


Lowell, who has also been mentioned as a potential trade target for the Twins, was once a highly coveted player. But looking at his numbers from the All-Star break in 2004 to this month's All-Star break, he managed just 11 home runs and 66 RBI.


The Orioles have tried to forge a compromise with Florida, hoping the Marlins will absorb a significant chunk of Lowell's remaining salary, but the sides remain several million apart.


At one point, according to one person close to the discussions, the Orioles tried to get the Marlins to take on struggling pitcher Sidney Ponson's contract, which runs through 2006, but Florida refused.


Baltimore has also tried to get the Pittsburgh Pirates involved in a potential three-way deal, but the Pirates refused to take on Lowell as well as a sizeable chunk of his contract.


In another potential complication, the Orioles have learned that Burnett -- a pending free agent -- wants his next contract to exceed the four-year, $40 million deal his former Marlins teammate Carl Pavano signed with the New York Yankees last winter.


Burnett, 28, has always had terrific promise, but he's not even a .500 pitcher for his career. Entering Tuesday, his career record was 42-44 with a 3.80 ERA. There's the hope that a change of scenery would help him, but that's always a gamble. The Marlins have fielded offers for Burnett from the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.


One top Orioles official said the club also has been exploring other alternatives, such as San Francisco's Jason Schmidt and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Jeff Weaver.


There's also the chance the Orioles could stand pat, and continue trying to build around young pitching. They may hold onto Penn the same way they held onto Erik Bedard, when the Oakland Athletics were asking for him last winter in a potential deal for Tim Hudson, who eventually landed with the Atlanta Braves.


Bedard, who returned from the disabled list Monday and tossed six terrific innings against the Twins, has blossomed into one of the top young lefthanders in baseball.


Instead of adding a starting pitcher, the Orioles could look to bolster their already potent offense. One club official said they asked the Cincinnati Reds about slugger Adam Dunn, but the Reds told them their asking price started with Bedard.


The Reds have frustrated many teams with their high demands. When the Twins inquired about third baseman Joe Randa last month, Cincinnati came back asking for one of three young pitchers: Jesse Crain, Francisco Liriano or Scott Baker.


The Twins, of course, declined. As desperate as they are for an offensive jolt, they refuse to mortgage their future.


The Orioles, who missed a chance to return to first place in the AL East on Tuesday, are being careful, too. With 11 days to the nonwaiver trade deadline a lot of things can change.


"We believe we're a contender right now," Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada said. "We've got Bedard back. [Catcher Javy Lopez] is coming back. Everyone says we're going to be good."

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