O's interest in two others rises from ashes of Rodriguez talks

Catcher's agent also has Valentin, Helling as clients

January 24, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Handed another lemon when free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez rejected their last offer, the Orioles might be better served if they stop trying to make lemonade. Maybe they should settle for not getting squirted in the eye.

But two days of negotiations with agent Jeff Moorad at the B&O warehouse could produce something other than frustration after Rodriguez signed Wednesday with the Florida Marlins. Though unable to reach an agreement with one of the market's highest-profile players, the Orioles at least had an opportunity to consider their interest in two other Moorad clients, infielder John Valentin and pitcher Rick Helling.

Valentin batted .240 in 114 games with the New York Mets, who signed him as a free agent. He spent 10 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, driving in 102 runs in 1995 and hitting .306 in 1997. But injuries limited him to 30 combined games in 2000 and 2001.

The Orioles could use Valentin, 35, in a utility role after they released Luis Lopez. Valentin, who earned $550,000 last season, also would be an option at third base if the club trades Tony Batista, though his declining skills might not allow him to be a regular.

Valentin committed 10 errors last season. He appeared in 24 games at shortstop, 22 at first base, 18 at third and three at second.

"We're looking at them both," said Mike Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations. "We've got to see what the deal is on them, so we always ask about everybody. We're just sort of putting them on the board and seeing how they fit in. It's just in the exploration area, but we're looking at it."

Helling is 82-70 with a 4.72 ERA since breaking into the majors with the Texas Rangers in 1994. He won 20 games in 1998 and was 16-13 in 2000. After signing as a free agent with the Arizona Diamondbacks last winter, Helling went 10-12 with a 4.51 ERA in 30 starts for his first losing record since 1997.

The No. 3 starter behind Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, he earned $3 million last season. Helling allowed 31 homers and has averaged 35 over the past four seasons.

Moorad said he expected to have further discussions with Jim Beattie, executive vice president of baseball operations, "in the next couple of days."

"We talked extensively about John Valentin and Rick Helling. The time was not wasted," Moorad said. "Their interest in Valentin seemed sincere, and the interest in Helling seemed conditional, but at the same time serious."

The Orioles were the only serious pursuers of Rodriguez until the Marlins began showing interest late last week. The Chicago Cubs went in another direction by acquiring Damian Miller, and the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds provided only a few nibbles.

The free-agent process, which has forced numerous players to downgrade their financial expectations this winter, left Rodriguez and his family feeling "very depressed."

"It was very, very difficult," he said. "There was nothing going on, nothing came. This is the first time in my career I've been in the market and it was very tough. Unfortunately it was at the wrong time and the wrong year. But there's always another time."

And that time, when his deal with the Marlins runs out after the season, again could bring interest from the Orioles, depending on the price tag dangling from Rodriguez.

"I was in Baltimore for a reason," Moorad said. "I felt it was the most natural fit. And for all I know, it may be that at some point in the future."

The Orioles were willing to give Rodriguez a three-year deal that, with incentives, would have pushed the total value close to $30 million. The Marlins swooped in with a one-year offer for $10 million, and the opportunity for Rodriguez to play near his Miami home.

"Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan and I spent many quality hours together and made some progress toward a deal," Moorad said, "but in the end there were just philosophical difference about appropriate compensation for a contract. Jim and Mike were professional, they were stand-up along the way, and I feel like the organization made a sincere attempt to put a deal together.

"The oddity of the current marketplace, as well as the fact we were handicapped given Pudge's injuries of late, created an obstacle toward completing a deal with the Orioles. And to their credit, one of the reasons that it was more of a challenge in Baltimore is because the organization didn't feel it was the right message for its fans to do a one-year contract. They never seriously entertained the notion of doing a short deal."

NOTES: The Orioles hoped to conduct further discussions last night with Alan Hendricks, who represents free-agent outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. Hendricks was traveling yesterday and couldn't be reached. ... Seventeen non-roster players were invited to spring training: pitchers Rigoberto Beltran, Darwin Cubillan, Mike Drumright, Rendy Espina, Mike Garcia, Mike Mohler, Rafael Pina, Fernando Rijo, Juan Rosario, Bill Pulsipher and Todd Rizzo; catchers Steve Lomasney, Carlos Mendez and Izzy Molina; infielders Eddy Garabito and Brian Rios; and outfielder Raymond Cabrera. ... The club is expected to announce some changes today in its coaching staffs at the minor-league level. Among the jobs open are Triple-A pitching coach and manager at Single-A Delmarva. ... Reliever Kerry Ligtenberg passed his physical and was added to the 40-man roster. To make room, Double-A outfielder Tim Raines Jr. was designated for assignment.

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