Marlins' bait beats O's to I. Rodriguez

1-year, $10.1 million deal follows 2 days of talks with Orioles on multi-year pact

O's incentives hard to reach

Catcher: Longer deal not `fair enough for both sides'

January 23, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Still attempting to improve an offense that lacks an intimidating presence in the middle of their lineup, the Orioles have struck out again in their pursuit of a high-profile free agent. This time, they were caught looking as the Florida Marlins flexed some financial muscle that hadn't been exposed.

Catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who was targeted by the Orioles immediately after the Texas Rangers failed to offer him a contract last month, agreed yesterday to a one-year deal with the Marlins worth $10.1 million. He'll receive $3 million this season, with the rest of the money deferred.

Once thought to be the only serious bidders for Rodriguez, the Orioles were blindsided by a team that didn't emerge as a candidate until late last week. General manager Larry Beinfest approached owner Jeffrey Loria, who gave his approval to pursue the 10-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner despite the Marlins' tight budget and scant hopes of contending in a division that includes the deep-pocketed Atlanta Braves, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies.

Jeffrey Moorad, who represents Rodriguez, spent more than four hours yesterday morning negotiating with Orioles officials at the B&O warehouse. The two sides also met the previous day, and the Orioles were willing to improve their three-year offer to around $21 million, plus lofty incentives - such as winning the MVP award, making 700 plate appearances and being the leader in All-Star voting - that would have brought them close to $30 million.

"I felt from the beginning that the Orioles were the most natural fit," Moorad said last night. "Nonetheless, after two days of trying to find common ground, we agreed to disagree."

The one-year Marlins agreement, pending a physical that Rodriguez is expected to take later this week, allows him to play near his Miami home and perhaps test the free-agent market again next winter. It also leaves the Orioles with nothing more than two wasted days of face-to-face negotiations.

"The big thing for us was we were looking for a long-term commitment, and we went about as far as we could financially," said Mike Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations. "Otherwise, it was going to be knocking their socks off with a one-year deal, and that really wasn't a goal of ours. ... We worked very, very hard, but it ultimately came down to the decision of the player. I guess they felt it wasn't enough to get it done."

In a conference call last night, Rodriguez said he wasn't comfortable with the Orioles' offer despite its length.

"It was a deal that wasn't fair enough for both sides, so I just have to go with the Marlins for a year," he said.

Rodriguez, who missed nearly two months last season with a herniated disc in his back, earned $9.6 million while batting .314 with 19 homers and 60 RBIs. He didn't attract much interest as a free agent despite his impressive credentials, including a .303 career average, and threatened to play in Japan rather than take a significant pay cut.

"It's not often that you have a special player like Ivan, and the things he can do for a team like ours," Loria said. "It's an important time for our club, and it was time to step up to the plate."

Having been spurned by Rodriguez, Cliff Floyd and Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui, the Orioles still are in the hunt for outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. They intend to resume talks today with agent Alan Hendricks and could reach a deal before the weekend. And while Geronimo Gil and Brook Fordyce remain the catchers, Flanagan said, "If we can upgrade, we'll upgrade."

While club officials remained in negotiations yesterday, reliever Kerry Ligtenberg took his physical in Baltimore. Ligtenberg, 31, signed a one-year contract worth $1.2 million after spending five seasons with the Braves. The deal, which Ligtenberg agreed to last week, includes a $1.2 million club option in 2004 and a $200,000 buyout.

Flanagan and Jim Beattie, executive vice president of baseball operations, also continue to engage in trade discussions. The New York Mets are the aggressors in a proposed deal that would give them third baseman Tony Batista while also allowing them to unload outfielder Jeromy Burnitz, who will make $11.5 million this summer, but the Orioles remain in more of a listening mode.

Such a deal would leave the Orioles in the market for a third baseman. At this point, they haven't shown interest in Boston's Shea Hillenbrand, who became expendable after the Red Sox signed Bill Mueller, but he could end up on their list if Batista is traded.

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