Hentgen slips out of O's nest to be Blue Jay

Pitcher returns to Toronto, finding team `a better fit' after strong second half

O's hoped to retain free agent

On hitting front, Palmeiro emerges

Lee talks grow

November 19, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The Orioles experienced a setback on the free-agent front yesterday when Pat Hentgen, a pitcher they had hoped to retain, went back to his roots by signing a one-year, $2.2 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Hentgen, 35, was the Orioles' most dependable pitcher after the All-Star break, but they declined to pick up his $4 million option for next season, enabling him to test the market.

Once there, Hentgen narrowed his choices to the Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays before deciding to return to Toronto, where he started his career and won the 1996 American League Cy Young Award.

"Every decision you make like this is a hard one," Hentgen said. "I spent three years with the Orioles, and I really became attached to people there.

"Toronto is just a better fit location-wise, and a better fit for where I'm at in my career."

Orioles vice presidents Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie were disappointed with Hentgen's decision, if not exactly shocked. They retrenched at the B&O warehouse, making progress toward other potential moves.

In coming days, Orioles officials are hoping to meet with the agents for free-agent sluggers Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada. Those two are represented by the same agents - Fernando Cuza and Diego Benz - and it turns out, the Orioles have at least some interest in another one of their clients: Rafael Palmeiro.

A fixture with the Orioles from 1994 to 1998, Palmeiro is a free agent again after spending five seasons with the Texas Rangers, and a high-ranking Orioles source said Palmeiro is on their list of possible targets.

Palmeiro, 39, has hit at least 38 home runs in each of the past nine seasons. The Orioles would prefer to add younger players - and there were indications yesterday that they may have moved closer to a deal for Florida Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee - but Palmeiro has surfaced as another option at designated hitter.

Flanagan would not give specifics, but he did say, "We have some other irons in the fire."

With Hentgen out of the equation, the Orioles will almost surely have to find other ways to address their starting pitching. Flanagan said the Orioles were looking at Hentgen as a potential fifth starter. Toronto apparently felt the same.

"We watched him pretty closely at the end of the season and thought of him as a guy who could give us 180 to 200 innings," said Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "I don't see him as a [No. 2 starter]. I see him more along the lines of a 4 or 5."

The Orioles made Hentgen a two-year offer before declining his option, but he made it clear he was looking to sign a one-year deal.

Even though he finished the season strongly - going 6-3 with a 3.10 ERA after the break - his season totals look less impressive: 7-8, with a 4.09 ERA in 160 2/3 innings.

Still less than 2 1/2 years removed from reconstructive elbow surgery, Hentgen hopes to put together a strong full season and then test the market again.

"I believe if he goes to Toronto and gets the run support he needs, we'll be able to come back and do a three-year deal next offseason," said Hentgen's agent, Bob LaMonte.

With incentives, Hentgen's deal will pay him up to $2.5 million this season.

LaMonte said Hentgen had offers - presumably from Tampa Bay or Detroit - that would have paid him up to $1 million more.

After failing to persuade Hentgen to take a two-year deal, the Orioles discussed the parameters of a one-year deal, but never made a formal offer.

LaMonte said it wouldn't have mattered.

Hentgen said he liked several things about Toronto, including the fact he has an offseason home in Tarpon Springs, Fla., a short drive from the Blue Jays' spring training facility in Dunedin. In Toronto, he'll be a three-hour drive from his hometown of Detroit, where he still has several friends and family members.

Baseball-wise, the Blue Jays have the reigning AL Cy Young winner in Roy Halladay and two of the premier offensive players in baseball in Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells.

Last season, the Blue Jays scored 894 runs. The Orioles scored 743.

"[The Orioles] were very pro-active and very professional," LaMonte said. "It really wasn't that they didn't make an effort, but once we said we only wanted to do a one-year deal, there was such a flurry of activity that we had options all over the board. You could pick your lineup and pick your city."

NOTE: Baseball's rumor mill continues to mention the Orioles as a potential dumping ground for high-salaried players that teams are looking to move this offseason, such as Texas' Alex Rodriguez, Boston's Manny Ramirez and the New York Mets' Mike Piazza. But Orioles officials dismissed all of those possibilities again yesterday. Teams talk about players every day, and the Rangers have not even called to discuss Rodriguez, the Orioles said.

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