Orioles seen as favorites to get Lopez

O's official says team is willing to offer catcher a three-year contract

Ponson is back in the picture

Team expected to meet Guerrero, Tejada agents

December 13, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - The Orioles have emerged as the clear front-runners to land free-agent catcher Javy Lopez, team and industry sources said yesterday, though the situation could change today, once his agent arrives at the winter meetings.

Lopez, who hit .328 with 43 home runs and 109 RBIs for the Atlanta Braves last season, turned 33 last month, and most teams have been reluctant to offer him a three-year guaranteed contract.

But a top Orioles official said they are willing to offer Lopez three years guaranteed. They have already exchanged contract figures with Lopez's agent, Chuck Berry, and will likely present a formal offer this weekend.

One Orioles source predicted that Lopez would sign for between $6 million and $7 million a season, so a three-year, $18 million offer might get it done.

Reached by phone yesterday, Berry declined to comment.

Lopez, who made $7 million last season, is one of five free agents the Orioles have circled on their radar screen - a list that includes Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez and somewhat-of-a-surprise entry: former Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson.

The Orioles have apparently rekindled their interest in Ponson after some of the recent developments on the free-agent front. The list of top pitchers is shrinking. Bartolo Colon signed with Anaheim, Andy Pettitte signed with Houston, and Kevin Millwood has said he likely will accept Philadelphia's arbitration offer.

Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie was spotted having a 15-minute discussion with Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, late Friday night at the New Orleans Marriott. "I just went up and chatted with him for a little while," Beattie said.

The Orioles traded Ponson to the San Francisco Giants on July 31 after he turned down a three-year, $21 million offer. After going 14-6 with a 3.77 ERA for the Orioles, Ponson went 3-6 with a 3.71 ERA for the Giants, and they turned him loose on Dec. 7 by declining to offer him salary arbitration.

Praver also was seen having a lengthy discussion with the St. Louis Cardinals. Starting pitching has been on the back-burner for the Orioles, but that could change if the price is right for Ponson.

"Our priority is to try to find some bats to help us score some runs, but if we're not able to accomplish that, there are other ways we can go," Beattie said. "And it may work out that way. To be honest, it may end up where we sign a fairly solid starting pitcher."

The top hitters on the free-agent market are Guerrero, Tejada, Lopez and Rodriguez, and while Beattie declined to speak in specifics, he would not rule out the possibility of the Orioles' landing three of those four players.

A smile crossed Beattie's face, and he said, "Yeah, we could. I think that is a scenario that we could put together, but we have to wait and see."

Much of that will depend on the market, Beattie said. The more prices stay down, the more they will be able to do.

Rodriguez, the free-agent catcher who led the Florida Marlins to the World Series title last season, is still viewed as a fallback option to Lopez for the Orioles, but they plan to meet with Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, this weekend.

The Orioles already have exchanged preliminary contract figures with Guerrero and Tejada, and they plan to meet with their agents again today. Industry sources say that based on the preliminary talks, the Orioles are still very much in the running for Guerrero, but the Seattle Mariners are considered the favorites to land Tejada.

Seattle has reportedly offered Tejada a three-year, $25 million deal, and they will almost certainly increase that in New Orleans.

An Orioles source said Guerrero is looking to at least top the six-year, $85 million deal Jim Thome signed last year with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Orioles would be willing to do six years, the source said, but in a depressed market, they don't want to match Thome's average annual value of $14.38 million per year.

"When we get into our meetings tomorrow, we'll have a much better sense of how it's going to move," Beattie said.

Still, Beattie sounded optimistic about landing some top free agents.

"We've got our eye on a target, and I don't think we're taking our eyes off the target," he said. "Until something breaks, we'll stay on that and try to make it work."

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