Orioles, J. Lopez agree to contract

Free-agent catcher expected to sign for 3 years, $23 million

O's still interested in Guerrero

December 22, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

With an elite shortstop crossed off their winter shopping list, the Orioles have reached an agreement with another high-profile free agent, catcher Javy Lopez, and an announcement could come as early as today.

Team officials were prepared to work late into last night while negotiating a deal with Lopez's agent, Chuck Berry. The Orioles apparently will sign Lopez for $23 million over three years.

It's possible the Orioles will withhold making an announcement until tomorrow. Either way, they are adding another big bat to their revamped lineup after signing Miguel Tejada during the winter meetings in New Orleans.

The two sides were trying to complete the paperwork last night. They'd still have to arrange a physical and get Lopez to Baltimore.

When Berry was asked earlier in the evening if the negotiations were nearing completion, he said, "To use a bad play of words, you're in the ballpark."

The Orioles have been unwilling to provide much information on the negotiations, but vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan said, "We feel like we're moving forward."

Not long ago, they seemed to be heading toward catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who was offered $24 million over three years, compared with $18 million over three years for Lopez.

Rodriguez told a Miami television reporter Thursday that the Orioles added a fourth year to their proposal, but executive vice president Jim Beattie said none of the team's offers had been modified.

It's believed certain members of the front office became irritated with Rodriguez's claim, which they viewed as a negotiating ploy by his agent, Scott Boras, that might have backfired.

A team official said last night the Orioles were beginning to move in the direction of Lopez before the controversy, but the timing of Lopez's emergence as the front-runner is undeniably curious.

"We've really been talking extensively at the winter meetings and since the winter meetings," Berry said. "The dialogue has continued, and we've been on a pretty steady track throughout."

Lopez batted .328 with 43 homers and 109 RBIs for the Atlanta Braves, who failed to offer him arbitration after the season. His age (33) and the fact that his offensive outburst - he set a single-season record for home runs for a major league catcher - came in a contract year might have thinned interest in him on the free-agent market.

The Orioles don't particularly care. They need to upgrade the position after alternating Brook Fordyce, Geronimo Gil and Robert Machado last season. Only Gil remains in the organization, and he'll vie for the backup job in spring training.

"With any free agent, once you've been talking to teams, the euphoria of being a free agent wears off and you're anxious to get it resolved," Berry said earlier last night. "If it's Baltimore, he'll be very happy to play there. The only drawback is being in the same division as New York and Boston.

"Baltimore is a quality city as far as the quality of life and the opportunities outside the ballpark."

The Orioles also maintain strong interest in outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and will seek to strengthen their rotation after declining to offer contracts Saturday to pitchers Jason Johnson and Damian Moss.

Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

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