Behind the plate, O's discussions heat up

With Lopez close to deal, I. Rodriguez lowers price

December 14, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Two days into the winter meetings, the Orioles still haven't made a move, but they are getting a better sense of the market for free-agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and shortstop Miguel Tejada.

And while opposing teams were falling in and out of the running for those two sluggers yesterday at the New Orleans Marriott, the Orioles were trying to decide which free-agent catcher they wanted most, Ivan Rodriguez or Javy Lopez.

The Orioles met with agent Scott Boras yesterday to discuss Rodriguez, and they were scheduled to have another meeting last night. Lopez's agent, Chuck Berry, also arrived last night, and he is expected to meet with the Orioles today.

Industry sources continue to predict the Orioles will soon sign Lopez to a three-year contract for about $18 million, but this might have spurred Rodriguez to reduce his asking price.

At one point, Rodriguez was reportedly looking for four years, $40 million.

"The conversations we've had with agents really have been pretty good today," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie, who declined to talk in specifics. "We're continuing to talk."

The Orioles have already made an offer to Guerrero, believed to be in the range of five years for $65 million. Team officials would not confirm the figure yesterday. Guerrero is reportedly looking for a seven-year, $105 million deal.

One major league executive said the New York Yankees have been calling the Montreal Expos, Guerrero's former team, for background information on the All-Star right fielder. The Yankees, the executive said, are in the running for Guerrero "big time."

That would seem to be an indication that the Yankees' three-year, $39 million deal with Gary Sheffield has fallen through, but sources close to Sheffield keep insisting the sides are close to finishing the deal.

If the Yankees get Sheffield, they will probably drop out of the Guerrero sweepstakes, and their Guerrero interest could be a smoke screen to scare Sheffield into accepting the deal.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were never expected to be serious competitors for Guerrero, but they seemed to drop out of the running completely yesterday when they acquired right fielder Juan Encarnacion from the Florida Marlins for two minor-leaguers to be named.

But that may have enhanced the Marlins' chances of making a serious bid for Guerrero. One National League executive said the Marlins are definitely going to make a bid, and Florida is said to be very high on Guerrero's preference list.

After the World Series, there was speculation that the Marlins may have to slash payroll again, but after trading Derrek Lee, cutting Rodriguez loose, and trading Encarnacion yesterday, Florida has freed up enough salary room to make a run at Guerrero.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria used to own the Expos, and he knows landing Guerrero could help convince the voters to build him a new stadium in Miami.

The Tejada situation is equally complex. The Detroit Ti gers were rumored to have offered him a five-year, $50 million contract, but Tejada's agents got back to them with a counterproposal yesterday, and the negotiations screeched to a halt.

"The difference is immense," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski told reporters.

He also suggested that there was an "undisclosed team" that seemed close to signing Tejada. That team could be the Boston Red Sox, who have re-opened negotiations with shortstop Nomar Garciaparra but may have reached the point of no return after threatening to replace him with Alex Rodriguez.

The Orioles already have offered Tejada a three-year deal for about $27 million, though team sources would not confirm that amount yesterday. Industry insiders predict the Orioles would eventually be willing to make Tejada a five-year deal.

The Seattle Mariners reportedly have offered a four-year deal for about $25 million. As of yesterday, they had not increased that offer, and there is speculation the Mariners will not do anything longer than four years with an option for a fifth.

So all of this remains a crap shoot, and the Orioles are couching their bets.

A major league source said they have had a discussion with the Toronto Blue Jays about trading left-hander Matt Riley to Toronto for first baseman/designated hitter Josh Phelps.

Orioles sources said they also plan to ask the Chicago White Sox what it would take to trade for right fielder Magglio Ordonez. As of yesterday, the teams had yet to meet.

"I don't think we're doing anything to force an agent's hand," Beattie said.

"We have Plan A, with how things can come together with players, but we've also had conversations with other guys who are Plan B because we're not the only guys out there trying to sign these free agents."

NOTE: Former Orioles reliever Todd Frohwirth and former Yankees scout Gus Quattelbaum have been added to the team's pro scouting staff.

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