Orioles hoping to catch J. Lopez

With I. Rodriguez's price considered steeper, team now focused on free agent

Agent: `Nothing is imminent'

Contract offer unlikely until arbitration deadline passes this Sunday

December 04, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

If the Orioles decide to spend their money on a free-agent catcher this offseason, there's a better chance it will be Javy Lopez than their old, familiar dance partner, Ivan Rodriguez.

From what Orioles officials have gathered, Rodriguez still has steeper contract demands than Lopez, who hit .328 with 43 home runs and 109 RBIs for the Atlanta Braves last season.

So one year after falling short in their attempts to sign Rodriguez to a long-term deal, the Orioles have turned their attention to Lopez.

"We've had a couple of conversations [with the Orioles]," Lopez's agent, Chuck Berry, said yesterday. "There's no offer out on the table, but I think we'll be talking soon about some dollars and cents.

"The best way to put it is, they seem to have serious interest in Javy, and Javy has serious interest in them. We're still sorting through the process. Nothing is imminent at this point."

The Orioles probably won't make an offer to Lopez until after a key deadline passes Sunday. That's the final day for teams to offer salary arbitration to their own free agents, and if the Braves don't offer Lopez arbitration, the Orioles won't lose any draft picks by signing him.

Berry said he doubts the Braves will offer Lopez arbitration. A year ago, in a benchmark case, the Braves offered arbitration to Greg Maddux, hoping he would decline, which would have guaranteed them draft-pick compensation from the team that signed him as a free agent.

But Maddux accepted arbitration, forcing the Braves to negotiate a one-year deal at an above-market price of $14.75 million. Assuming a tough lesson was learned, Atlanta will likely cut Lopez loose Sunday.

Despite his offensive strengths, Lopez is considered below average defensively, and this presents a dilemma for the Orioles.

Last month, executive vice president Jim Beattie said the Orioles planned to make defense a priority behind the plate. They had talks with the Minnesota Twins about A.J. Pierzynski before he was traded to the San Francisco Giants, and talks with the Oakland Athletics about Ramon Hernandez before he was dealt to the San Diego Padres.

The Orioles also had interest in Brad Ausmus before he re-signed with the Houston Astros.

"Ideally, you'd like to have a defensive catcher," Beattie said. "In the American League, you can use the DH and first base to get your offense and go with a catch-and-throw guy behind the plate.

"How much you have to lean on offense from the catcher's point of view depends a little on what happens with the rest of the club."

In his discussions with the Orioles, Berry has made it known that Lopez is willing to try first base on days when he's not catching, to help save wear and tear on his body. The Orioles would also ask Lopez, 33, to spend some time at designated hitter.

Lopez hit 34 home runs with 106 RBIs in 1998, but he didn't surpass 30 home runs and 100 RBIs again until this past season. He was limited to 65 games in 1999 because of a knee injury, and a shoulder injury held him to 109 games in 2002.

Last year, he started 114 games at catcher for the Braves.

"There has been a lot of talk about the point when a catcher starts to decline dramatically," Berry said. "Last year, he was 100 percent healthy. Atlanta has been very intelligent about the way it uses its catchers. Javy enjoys catching, but he's willing to try first base, so they could spell him there one game a week."

Lopez has never played first base in the major leagues, but Berry said he's athletic enough to learn the position. Lopez played volleyball and was in track during his schoolboy days in Puerto Rico, which could help him with the footwork.

NOTES: The Orioles will likely let Sunday's deadline pass without offering arbitration to any of their free agents: Tony Batista, Scott Erickson, B.J. Surhoff, Brook Fordyce, Kerry Ligtenberg and Deivi Cruz. At that point, the Orioles could re-sign those players, but they wouldn't be able to rejoin their major league roster until May 1. According to team sources, there have been internal talks about doing a one-year deal with Surhoff this week before the arbitration deadline.

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