O's, Ponson show interest in reuniting

Adding pitcher possible, but initial focus remains on catcher, Guerrero

Agent: `He's open to returning'

Cards also like Ponson

decision on Rodriguez, Lopez likely by tomorrow

December 18, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan must have been good this year because, according to industry sources, there's a growing chance Santa Angelos will let them open four big presents this holiday season.

Having already signed shortstop Miguel Tejada contingent on his passing a physical examination, the Orioles plan to pick between free-agent catchers Javy Lopez and Ivan Rodriguez by tomorrow.

The Orioles will also try to sign right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, whose agents met with team officials yesterday in Baltimore.

Then, if owner Peter Angelos hasn't overspent his bounds, Sidney Ponson could be next.

The Orioles traded Ponson to the San Francisco Giants on July 31 after he turned down a three-year, $21 million contract offer, but there is growing interest on both sides to bring Ponson back.

"First of all, Sidney never wanted to leave Baltimore," Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, said yesterday. "Given the direction the club is going in now, I know he's open to returning."

With their attention focused mostly on Lopez and Rodriguez, the Orioles have yet to make an offer to Ponson. But Beattie and Flanagan had multiple discussions with Praver at the winter meetings in New Orleans, and team sources say Ponson is still a favorite of Angelos'.

Ponson, 27, went 14-6 with a 3.77 ERA with the Orioles last season, and the day he was traded, he said he didn't expect to come back, citing a strained relationship with Beattie. But yesterday, Praver said, "I really don't think bridges were ever burned."

Several factors could lead to Ponson's return, the first being familiarity. Ponson still keeps an apartment in Baltimore, and the scout who signed him, Jesus "Chu" Halabi, recently placed a call to Angelos, imploring him to re-sign the Aruban pitcher.

Sources who have spoken to Angelos since the Tejada signing say he is committed to letting Beattie and Flanagan build a team to compete with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees next season. Adding Tejada, Guerrero and a top catcher would be nice, but Angelos knows the starting pitching staff must improve.

Yesterday, two club sources said the Orioles still plan to non-tender the contracts of Jason Johnson and Damian Moss on Saturday, setting them loose as free agents instead of taking them through salary arbitration.

So, for now, their projected starting rotation is some combination of Rodrigo Lopez, Kurt Ainsworth, Eric DuBose, Matt Riley and Omar Daal.

Lopez was the team's Opening Day starter last season, but entering yesterday, he was still struggling in the Mexican Winter League. In six games for the Culiacan Tomato Growers, he was 1-5 with a 6.03 ERA, with 36 hits and 20 walks in 31 1/3 innings pitched.

Ainsworth, DuBose and Riley have yet to pitch a full season in the majors, and last season, Daal went 4-11 with a 6.34 ERA.

The rest of the division is taking notice. Asked about his team's place in the American League East this week, Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi told the Toronto Sun: "Offensively, we match up with any of these teams. If Baltimore signs pitchers who can totally dominate, that would be different."

Non-tenders who likely will flood the market Saturday, barring trades, include the Seattle Mariners' Freddy Garcia and Montreal Expos' Tony Armas. But with Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Andy Pettitte signed, and Kevin Millwood saying he likely will accept arbitration from the Philadelphia Phillies, Ponson will still be one of the top pitchers available.

The Chicago White Sox lost Colon to free agency, and their owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, was spotted talking to Praver on Monday in New Orleans. Praver also spoke with executives from the St. Louis Cardinals, whose pitching staff now lags woefully behind those of the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros in the National League Central.

The pitching-poor Texas Rangers could make a run at Ponson if they free up money by trading Alex Rodriguez to the Red Sox, and the New York Mets might eventually enter the mix, as well.

Orioles officials say the prices will have to be right to add Ponson with Guerrero and a top catcher.

Having come close to reaching an agreement with Javy Lopez, they appear to be waiting for Ivan Rodriguez to lower his asking price. Team sources said the Orioles have offered Rodriguez a three-year, $24 million deal, but his agent, Scott Boras, is looking for a four-year deal with an option for a fifth at $9 million a year with incentives that could lift the salary into the $10 million range.

The Dodgers, the only other known suitor for Rodriguez, have said they won't give Rodriguez anything longer than a three-year deal. The Orioles seem reluctant to budge, even though Boras told the Los Angeles Times, "something could happen very soon."

Lopez would come cheaper. He is looking for a three-year, $24 million deal and the Orioles have offered three years at $18 million.

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