With the Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies engaged in a bidding war for free-agent first baseman Jim Thome, the Orioles have pulled out of the running, two high-ranking Orioles officials said yesterday.
Those sources said the Orioles have had multiple conversations with Thome's agent, Pat Rooney, but haven't made an offer because they believe Thome wants to stay in Cleveland and didn't want to jack up the price for the Indians.
With the Orioles in the market for a big bat, Thome was seen as their ideal free-agent target because he is a left-handed hitter who smashed 52 home runs last season. He has strong ties to Orioles manager Mike Hargrove from their time together in Cleveland, but the Orioles were never interested in offering Thome more than four years.
Part of it is age. Thome turns 33 in August. Cleveland, which is facing serious financial constraints this offseason, made an initial offer of four years, $48 million. Philadelphia tried blowing everyone away with its initial five-year, $75 million offer.
When Cleveland countered with a five-year, $60 million deal yesterday, the Phillies reportedly came back with a six-year offer with an option for a seventh year that could bring the total value of the contract to $110 million.
"I'm assuming it's the Phillies or us at this point," Cleveland general manger Mark Shaprio told the Associated Press. "If we chase their dollars, we're going to lose that battle."
At the end of a seven-year deal, Thome would be 40.
The baseball industry is keeping a close eye on the Thome negotiations to gauge if the market is indeed down like so many have predicted. Thome will face a lot of pressure from the Major League Players Association to take the big money from Philadelphia to keep the market strong for other players.
Besides Thome, the Orioles have expressed interest in Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui, Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, Boston Red Sox outfielder Cliff Floyd and New York Mets third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo.
Matsui, 28, a left-handed hitter who smashed 50 home runs last season for the Yomiuri Giants, plans to hire an agent and begin negotiating with teams next week. The Orioles are one of four teams that responded to his letter expressing interest in signing with a major-league team. The others are believed to be the New York Yankees, Red Sox and Seattle Mariners.
In other Orioles news:
They have flirted with the idea of signing free-agent pitcher Paul Byrd but were turned off to learn that Byrd is seeking a multi-year contract worth $4 million to $6 million per season. Byrd, who turns 32 next month, had a base salary of $850,000 last year but made $2.2 million with incentives after going 17-11 with a 3.90 ERA for the Royals.
Their search for a general manager figures to be quiet through the Thanksgiving weekend, and a replacement for vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift probably won't be named until next week. The three front-runners are Mike Flanagan, Ron Schueler and Jim Beattie.
With the winter meetings scheduled Dec. 13 to 16, time is running short, so Thrift has been preparing for the Rule 5 draft. The Orioles landed right fielder Jay Gibbons in the Rule 5 draft two years ago.
As of yesterday, Beattie said he still hadn't heard from the Red Sox, who interviewed him last week for a vice president of scouting and player development position. The Red Sox hired Theo Epstein as their GM on Monday, and they told Schueler they would be getting back to him about a potential special assistant's role.
With Flanagan expected to get a top position inside the Orioles' front office, working side by side with Schueler or Beattie, look for Flanagan to pull out of the running for a front-office position with the Red Sox.