NEW ORLEANS - The Orioles are threatening to stage a major coup at the winter meetings, and if the rest of baseball was disbelieving, that changed yesterday, when they signed free-agent shortstop Miguel Tejada to a six-year, $72 million contract.
Could Vladimir Guerrero and one of two free-agent catchers - Javy Lopez or Ivan Rodriguez - come next? The Orioles certainly weren't dismissing that possibility yesterday, and suddenly everyone else had to take them seriously.
"We felt like this was a great first step for us," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "And we've got a lot to do yet."
Having sat mostly dormant on the free-agent front since November 1998, when they signed Albert Belle to his disastrous, five-year, $65 million contract, the Orioles made a bold push for Tejada starting late Friday.
Outbidding the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers, the Orioles signed Tejada to the richest contract in franchise history. But it was a deal that left them room to keep spending for next season. Tejada will make $7 million in 2004, including $4 million of his signing bonus.
Tejada, 27, comes with impressive credentials. With the Oakland Athletics, he won the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player award and helped guide that team to three consecutive playoff berths.
Last year, after a slow start, he hit .305 over the season's final 130 games and finished batting .278 with 27 home runs and 106 RBIs.
The Orioles have suffered through six consecutive losing seasons, but in a teleconference from his home in the Dominican Republic, Tejada said: "I don't have any problem with that.
"When we came to Oakland, they were not a winning team. We made them a winning team, and that's what we're going to do in Baltimore."
The Orioles have made at least one offer to Guerrero, believed to be for five years, $65 million, but those talks seemed quiet yesterday while Guerrero's agents - Diego Benz and Fernando Cuza - negotiated Tejada's contract.
On the catcher front, the Orioles have a three-year, $18 million offer to Lopez, which they have modified only slightly during the weekend.
They have been in serious negotiations with Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, and several industry sources yesterday were predicting that the Orioles would sign Rodriguez to a three-year contract with a base salary of $7 million a season and incentives that would allow Rodriguez to earn $10 million a year.
But two team sources said the club was still leaning toward Lopez because Rodriguez was asking for more than the Orioles wanted to spend.
Either way, the Orioles, who are considered the favorites to land Guerrero unless the Florida Marlins swoop in and get him, were looking pretty good in their efforts to land three marquee free agents.
"It's possible," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said. "We'd like to think so. I wouldn't say we're finished on anything. Whether it happens or not remains to be seen."
The Orioles were expected to negotiate contracts with Lopez, Rodriguez and potentially even Guerrero late into last night. And early this morning, they also had a discussion with Barry Praver, the agent of former Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson.
Beattie and Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan haven't slept much in New Orleans, but that has nothing to do with Bourbon Street. They were up most of the night Friday.
Seattle made a five-year, $54 million offer to Tejada, but a Mariners official said Tejada's agent told them they had an offer from an undisclosed team for six years, $69 million. Then the Orioles pounced.
After agreeing to the terms, they got Tejada to structure the deal with a $12 million signing bonus paid out as $4 million in 2004 and $2 million each in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2011.
In base salary, Tejada will make $3 million this year, $9 million in 2005, $10 million in 2006, $12 million in 2007 and $13 million each in 2008 and 2009.
The deal does not include a no-trade clause, and the Orioles were able to insure all six years.
There has been widespread industry speculation that Tejada may be about 3 years older than his listed age of 27 - something that may come to light this offseason when he applies for his next working visa - and that added to the Orioles' gamble of giving him a six-year deal.
"We've checked on Miguel's background credentials, the whole thing, so we're comfortable with what the situation presents," Beattie said.
In the youthful Oakland clubhouse, Tejada emerged as a leader, and when he spoke of his reasons for choosing the Orioles yesterday, he certainly sounded comfortable with his choice.
"I love the stadium and the city," he said. "And I think that's why I made the decision so quick."
Flanagan cited Tejada's durability. He has baseball's longest active streak of games played - 594 - something the Orioles can certainly appreciate after watching Cal Ripken play in 2,632 straight.
"That's one of the reasons I signed over there," Tejada said. "I'm going to play on the same field that Cal Ripken played."