With 1-year deals, O's sign Ligtenberg, keep Matthews

Reliever gets $1.2 million, chance for heavy workload

January 17, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

When reliever Kerry Ligtenberg became a free agent last month, at least nine teams expressed immediate interest in him. The Orioles were among the first callers to his agent, Lonnie Cooper, with assurances that Ligtenberg would get plenty of opportunities to pitch.

Now, they have a chance to keep their promise.

Ligtenberg, 31, signed a one-year, $1.2 million contract yesterday, contingent on his passing a physical next week in Baltimore. The deal includes a $1.2 million club option in 2004, with a $200,000 buyout.

"He was available and we liked him a lot, and we were a little bit surprised he was still out there," said Mike Flanagan, Orioles vice president of baseball operations.

Yesterday's business wasn't restricted to Ligtenberg. The Orioles avoided a possible arbitration hearing with Gary Matthews by signing the outfielder to a one-year contract worth $900,000. The two sides would have exchanged salary figures today.

Ligtenberg earned $1.7 million last season with the Atlanta Braves, when he continued a successful return from ligament-transplant surgery three years earlier by going 3-4 with a 2.97 ERA in 52 games. He's 12-12 with a 3.04 ERA and 44 saves in 51 opportunities during his major-league career, which began in August 1997 with the Braves.

The Orioles entrusted Jorge Julio with the closer's job last season and he responded with 25 saves, two short of the club's rookie record. Willis Roberts was the primary right-handed set-up man, but he could be used more in the sixth or seventh innings with Ligtenberg bridging the last gap to Julio.

"He's a guy who can close, who can be the set-up man and who could be your first guy out of the bullpen," Flanagan said. "What we like about him is he's not penciled in as a one-out guy or a one-inning guy. He can pitch multiple innings, and he has experience as a closer.

"In a lot of ways, he could be the right-handed complement to Buddy Groom or the right-handed complement to B.J. Ryan. It just gives us more depth in a bullpen that already was pretty deep. And all it cost us was money.

"Julio's closer job isn't in question. You look at it more like, if Julio saves seven straight games for us and needs a day off, you have Groom and Ligtenberg and Willis Roberts who have all closed."

When the Braves failed to offer him a contract last month, Ligtenberg became a free agent. The Oakland Athletics, Kansas City Royals and Colorado Rockies were among his suitors.

"There's been periodic conversations with the Orioles," Cooper said, "and it got more serious the last two weeks. We talked to a lot of teams, and they were talking to a lot of agents. That's just the process."

Reached at his home in Minnesota yesterday, Ligtenberg said: "We were kind of seeing what was out there, but we had talked to them quite a bit, and it finalized pretty quickly as far as an actual contract. There wasn't a whole lot of talk about numbers. They were interested and I said I was interested and it happened over the last couple of days.

"They're going to give me a chance to go out there and pitch. For the last two years, I really haven't pitched as much as I would have liked, and I don't think I was as productive as I could have been."

Ligtenberg threw 66 2/3 innings last season, his second-highest total in five major-league seasons. He tied for second among National League relievers in first-batter efficiency, holding them to a .143 average. He has allowed fewer hits than innings pitched every season, but the Braves weren't willing to go to arbitration with him this winter.

"We went to the playoffs all those years, and that was something I kind of got used to," he said. "Hopefully, I can continue that with Baltimore."

The Orioles were a comfortable fit for Ligtenberg because of his relationship with Jim Beattie, the club's executive vice president of baseball operations. Ligtenberg pitched in the Seattle Mariners organization, where Beattie served as farm director, before he joined the Braves in 1996.

In 1998, Ligtenberg converted 30 of 34 save opportunities while appearing in a career-high 75 games, but he suffered a torn ligament in his right elbow during spring training in 1999 and missed the entire season.

"I closed a long time ago, and there were other chances for me to go places and be a closer, but that wasn't at the top of my list," he said. "I just wanted to go out and get as many innings as possible."

Ligtenberg can make an additional $300,000 in performance bonuses in 2004. He would earn $50,000 each for appearing in 50 and 55 games, and $100,000 each for appearing in 60 and 65 games.

Matthews received a nice raise from his $237,500 salary last season. Acquired in an April trade with the New York Mets, he batted .276 with seven homers and 38 RBIs in 109 games while taking the center field job from Chris Singleton. He established career highs in average, doubles (25) and slugging percentage (.427).

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