2 gifts enough for now under Orioles' tree

With Lopez joining Tejada, Flanagan takes holiday break from the phones

Former Brave upbeat about O's

Catcher talks of playoffs, W. Series

Flanagan sees free-agent activity in Jan.

December 24, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

With two elite players in his possession and another shopping day left before Christmas, Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan indicated yesterday that he didn't expect the club to announce any more free-agent signings until the 2003 calendar runs out.

He might even go a full 24 hours without talking to a player's agent, which would constitute a major lull in negotiations given the Orioles' accelerated offseason pace.

"I expect it to pick up soon after the holidays," he said.

In the meantime, Flanagan could stand back yesterday and admire the front office's latest work.

Catcher Javy Lopez passed his team and insurance physicals and rushed to the B&O warehouse to greet the local media - or what remained of it with so many vacations planned this week. The Orioles surprised him by inviting his aunt, uncle and three cousins, who live in Joppatowne and Bel Air, and Lopez interrupted the proceedings for a group hug.

"We believe this is another one of those steps along the way to getting us where we want to be," Flanagan said. "We're pleased and thrilled. We couldn't be happier."

Lopez wore No. 8 with the Atlanta Braves, but he had no intention of asking the Orioles for it. Replacing Brook Fordyce is one thing, but he's smart enough not to take on Cal Ripken.

Given the choice of 18 or 11, Lopez went with the former after accepting the advice of his girlfriend, Gina Broadbeck. That should be his last tough decision for a while.

Once the Orioles increased their offer to $22.5 million over three years, Lopez severed his ties to the National League, where he spent the past 10 full seasons with the Braves. His contract includes a $1.5 million signing bonus and salaries of $5.5 million in 2004, $7 million in 2005 and $8.5 million in 2006.

"This is going to be one of my best Christmases ever," he said.

"It's going to be a totally new experience for me coming over here. Playing on a different team is going to be totally different for me. But I've heard from a couple players, the experience they had playing here, they all say good things about it. I look forward to having a great experience in Baltimore.

"All the people in Baltimore, they can count on me because I'm here to play my best. I'll give 100 percent out there and try to help the team as much as I can to get to the playoffs and win the World Series."

Lopez raised the bar pretty high this year, setting career highs by hitting .328 with 43 homers and 109 RBIs. Forty-two of those homers came as a catcher, the most in major league history. And qualifying for the postseason always was a foregone conclusion in Atlanta.

The Orioles haven't made the playoffs since going wire-to-wire to win the AL East in 1997. That's the last time they finished above fourth place.

"I don't expect the owner to build a monster team in one year," he said, "but I know the players we have right now are good enough to make a good battle out there."

Besides changing the Orioles' residence in the division, Lopez also would like to alter his reputation for being subpar defensively.

"I consider myself an average catcher," he said. "I know the reputation I got with the Braves was that my defense was below-average. I don't believe that."

Lopez already has assured new manager Lee Mazzilli that he'll gladly serve as the designated hitter when needed, and he also volunteered to play first base "in case of an emergency."

"I told him that he can count on me because I can do the job out there."

Already, the catcher and manager are bonding.

"He sounds like a very cool person, very friendly," Lopez said. "He sounds like he gives players the confidence to be comfortable with him. That's what makes a good manager."

Lopez is pretty comfortable at Camden Yards, judging by his .529 lifetime average (9-for-17) - the second-highest for any player with 17 or more at-bats. Boston's Bill Mueller is 12-for-18.

Asked for an explanation, Lopez didn't have one handy. He looked to his relatives for help, laughter filling the room, until Flanagan intervened.

"He's being modest," Flanagan said. "I said to him, `You realize that you're a .529 hitter here at Camden Yards,' and he said, `That sounds a little low to me.' "

"Hopefully," Lopez said, "I can hit .600 here."

Lopez attributes his success at the plate last season to not piling as much food on top of one. He went on the Subway diet last winter, subsisting on turkey breast sandwiches, and lowered his weight from 248 to 210.

Flanagan refuted an ESPN.com report that Lopez's contract includes a $5 million weight management clause.

"It's a minor fraction of that," he said. "You've got to move that decimal point a long way, and not to the right."

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