O's pitch offer to slugger Gonzalez

Two-year deal thought to top $20M

Texas, Mets likely have edge

January 05, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Left mostly with empty palms in their free-agent dealings this winter, the Orioles reached out to Juan Gonzalez last night by making their first formal offer to a player who represents the cleanup hitter and corner outfielder they've sought since ending the season with 98 losses and gaping holes in their lineup.

The Orioles have made a two-year offer for Gonzalez that includes a club option for 2004. Syd Thrift, the vice president for baseball operations, confirmed the years but wouldn't discuss financial parameters. However, he indicated that the Orioles' offer includes less money than the New York Mets reportedly are willing to give the two-time Most Valuable Player.

Gonzalez's agent, Jeff Moorad, flew into Texas late Thursday to pick up negotiations with Rangers general manager John Hart. Moorad has maintained almost daily contact with Mets GM Steve Phillips and said he expects Gonzalez to make a decision by early next week.

"He was very cordial," Thrift said of Moorad. Asked about the Orioles' offer, which is believed to fall between $20 million and $23 million, Thrift said, "I think he feels like it's on the light side."

Moorad couldn't be reached for comment, but he told the Associated Press that Gonzalez "is going through his own analysis in terms of the teams involved and the general financial parameters we believe each is comfortable with. When we talk again, I expect to get some more guidance from him, and I'll try to make the deal with the team that makes sense."

Thrift said: "He [Moorad] has to get back to us. We have to see how it plays out."

Thrift said any offer to Gonzalez is contingent on his passing a physical. He disputed a report that Gonzalez had been examined in Baltimore earlier this week.

Phillips has been assured that he'll get a chance to match any offer for Gonzalez, who batted .325 with 35 homers and 140 RBIs for the Cleveland Indians last season. Gonzalez's first choice apparently remains the Mets, where he could rejoin close friend Roberto Alomar. But he also spent parts of 11 seasons with the Rangers and has additional ties to Hart, his general manager in Cleveland.

Money continues to work against the Mets, with Phillips maintaining that Gonzalez is a "long shot" to sign. Ownership wants to keep the payroll around $95 million, and a flurry of off-season activity has raised it to $93 million. Baseball insiders say Gonzalez is likely to command an annual salary between $12 million and $14 million.

Phillips has denied that the Mets made a formal bid for Gonzalez, contradicting a report from one New York tabloid that the club offered a backloaded two-year deal totaling $25 million. Mo Vaughn, acquired by the Mets in a trade with Anaheim, deferred $13.75 million of the remaining $42 million of his contract to assist the team in signing Gonzalez. Another $6 million could be freed up if Todd Zeile is traded, but so far there have been no takers.

Clubs remain leery of giving Gonzalez, 32, a long-term deal because of a herniated disc in his back, but Moorad reportedly has taken out a $50 million insurance policy on him to alleviate the concerns of his suitors.

Industry sources have interpreted Phillips' lack of enthusiasm as a ploy to keep down Gonzalez's price. The Mets are desperate to add a powerful bat to an outfield that last year squeezed out 19 home runs from Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Timo Perez.

The Orioles would like to place Gonzalez, who has averaged 36 homers and 114 RBIs in 11 full major-league seasons, between David Segui and Jeff Conine while lowering free-agent acquisition Marty Cordova to sixth or seventh. It's believed that majority owner Peter Angelos is hesitant to sign Gonzalez or another expensive hitter without also securing a closer - a task that's proving just as difficult.

Thrift contacted free agent Jeff Shaw on Dec. 26 after holding discussions with agent Joe Bick. Manager Mike Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley made follow-up calls to Shaw, but Bick indicated again on Thursday that a deal is unlikely.

"My feelings haven't changed. I just don't see that Jeff looks at that as a viable option," Bick said. "I certainly don't think it's a dead issue, but I feel it would be a long shot."

Shaw, who saved 43 games last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers, prefers to remain in the National League and closer to his Ohio home. He's also contemplating retirement.

A club official said the Orioles have no interest in free agent Todd Jones, who split last season between Detroit and Minnesota. Their search for a late-inning specialist could take them full circle, with incumbent Willis Roberts thrown into a mix that includes fellow rookies Jorge Julio and Kris Foster. Thrift also mentioned left-hander Buddy Groom, who led the club with 11 saves, as a possibility.

"We may have to rely on what we have," Thrift said.

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