O's costs now less for Lopez, Guerrero

Free agents not offered arbitration, so suitors won't give up draft picks

December 09, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The Orioles' offseason plan seems to be unfolding about as rapidly as the continental drift, but they did get some news yesterday morning that may help spur a little movement.

Two of their top free-agent targets, Vladimir Guerrero and Javy Lopez, were among the scores of players who were not offered salary arbitration by their respective teams before Sunday's midnight deadline.

The Montreal Expos effectively cut ties with Guerrero, and the Atlanta Braves did the same with Lopez, so now the Orioles can sign both players without having to surrender draft picks.

For a club that's not only looking to reshape its big league roster, but also to rebuild the farm system, the Orioles could only look at this as a positive development.

"We don't want to give up draft picks if we don't have to," Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said.

Among the highest-profile free agents, the only ones who were offered arbitration were Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte, Kevin Millwood and Bartolo Colon. From that list, the only one the Orioles have been courting is Tejada, the Oakland Athletics shortstop.

And Flanagan did not rule out anything. Asked if the idea of losing a draft pick would preclude the Orioles from signing a free agent, Flanagan said, "No. We wouldn't get hit that hard."

Tejada is a Type A free agent, so if the Orioles sign him, they would forfeit next year's second-round draft pick to the Athletics, who would also get a compensatory "sandwich" pick between the first and second rounds.

The price would be steeper for the Orioles if they had finished higher in the standings. The 15 teams at the bottom of the draft order (based in reverse order on last year's finish) must surrender a first-round pick when they sign a Type A free agent.

Still, the Orioles will have less to lose when they resume negotiating with Guerrero's agents. The two sides are scheduled to meet again at the winter meetings, which begin Friday in New Orleans.

The Orioles were planning to speak with Lopez's agent, Chuck Berry, last night.

The Boston Globe cited a major league source as saying the Orioles are preparing to offer Guerrero a six-year deal worth between $13 million and $14 million per year, but Orioles officials have not confirmed that.

Guerrero's market seems to be shrinking, even though the 27-year-old right fielder is considered one of the top talents in the game. The Expos made a last-ditch effort to sign him this past weekend, reportedly with a five-year offer worth more than $70 million, but he declined.

The Orioles' stiffest competition for Guerrero was expected to come from the Anaheim Angels, but there were reports last night that the Angels are close to signing Colon.

Angels owner Arte Moreno has said the club likely will sign only one player for more than $10 million a year, and that would be Colon.

The Los Angeles Dodgers would love to sign Guerrero, but only if they can trade starting pitcher Kevin Brown to free up some salary. The New York Mets also have interest, but they just committed $6.75 million per year to sign Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui.

One major league source said the Orioles had hoped to sign Matsui, but his agent, Arn Tellem, told them his client preferred to play in Los Angeles or New York.

The source also said the Orioles had hoped to land pitcher Javier Vazquez from the Expos before the New York Yankees swooped in and got him last week.

Montreal took the Yankees' offer of first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera and left-handed pitcher Randy Choate before the Orioles or other teams could make a bid.

But Flanagan said the Orioles have been in touch with several teams and several agents, looking ahead to the winter meetings. "We'll be busy," he said.

Beyond Guerrero, Lopez and Tejada, the Orioles have expressed interest in several players, and sources say that list includes pitcher Sidney Ponson and shortstop Rich Aurilia. The San Francisco Giants did not offer arbitration to either of those players Sunday.

The Orioles traded Ponson to the Giants at the July 31 deadline for pitchers Kurt Ainsworth, Damian Moss and Ryan Hannaman. Ponson turned down a three-year, $21 million offer before the trade and didn't leave on the best of terms, so the chances of him returning still seem remote.

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