Orioles get more aggressive in negotiations with J. Cruz

Run producer for middle of lineup is basis of quest


January 20, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Flexible enough to change direction according to the flow of baseball's free-agent market, the Orioles have grown more interested in outfielder Jose Cruz despite a roster bulging with players at that position.

Jim Beattie, executive vice president of baseball operations, has become more aggressive in negotiations with Cruz's agent, Alan Hendricks, as he attempts to find a run producer for the middle of the Orioles' lineup.

Last month, Beattie and vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan seemed ready to look elsewhere because they weren't certain Cruz, 28, represented an upgrade over the outfielders already under contract. But Hendricks apparently has lowered his demands as spring training nears, and the Orioles are more likely to strike a shorter-term deal.

"He is someone we still have in the mix," Beattie said. "Obviously, there are only so many outfielders you can add. We're trying to figure out which way we can go and what's our priority and trying to do something that makes sense for us both financially as well as talent-wise for the club.

"The dollars they were talking about initially just didn't make as much sense to us as they do now."

A switch-hitting center fielder, Cruz earned $3.95 million with the Toronto Blue Jays last season while batting .245 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs.

"We've always stayed in touch with them, but our approach was, `At these dollars, we just don't have as much interest, but at different dollars we may.' And they kept that in mind," Beattie said. "Of late, we've been maybe a little more aggressive, putting some ideas out there with respect to what our parameters are, and they've been received a little bit better at this point."

Beattie will have further discussions this week with Jeff Moorad, who represents free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Beattie said the Orioles are adamant about locking up Rodriguez for at least three years rather than renting him in 2003, contradicting his statement in Friday's edition of the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia that a one-year deal was being negotiated.

"There's an effort still to get something done," Beattie said. "I don't want to characterize it as a one-year thing. We had some brief discussions about one year but really felt like if we wanted to do this, a multi-year made a little more sense for us."

The Orioles would sign Cruz for fewer years than Rodriguez, who initially sought a contract worth at least $10 million annually but hasn't found any takers.

"We'd do shorter term [with Cruz], whether it would be one year or two years. Those are things we're discussing right now," Beattie said.

A report out of New York yesterday had the Orioles prepared to sign Cruz within the next four days. Flanagan said there was nothing "imminent," and Beattie added: "You don't know how soon these things are going to turn. At some point, things can move quickly. But I don't have a sense that it's that close."

One rumor floating around baseball has the Orioles looking to acquire outfielder Jeromy Burnitz from the New York Mets for third baseman Tony Batista. The two clubs have held discussions this winter, but the Mets include Burnitz or Roger Cedeno in most conversations because they're looking to move a pricey outfielder.

Asked about the Orioles' interest in Burnitz, a club source said: "It's not hot right now." Perhaps the feeling is mutual. Burnitz reportedly has included the Orioles among seven teams in his no-trade clause.

Burnitz, 33, will make $11.5 million this season, his last before becoming a free agent.

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