Orioles upfront on back concern

Durability consideration becomes factor in length of contract for Guerrero

He missed 50 games in 2003

Agent says player's back has been rehabbed fully, and he is up to the test

January 06, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Why isn't Vladimir Guerrero an Oriole yet? Blame his back.

With negotiations between the team and the free agent right fielder still moving at knuckleball speed yesterday, Orioles insiders said the major sticking point has been the length of a potential contract.

The Orioles have offered Guerrero a five-year, $65 million deal, and they have expressed deep reluctance to offer a sixth year to a player who spent 39 games on the disabled list last season with a herniated disc in his lower back.

"I can't say it's not part of the equation because it is," a top Orioles official said, when asked how concerned the team was about Guerrero's back injury.

The Orioles have already given a six-year, $72 million contract to shortstop Miguel Tejada this offseason, but they can justify the length of that deal by pointing to his streak of 594 consecutive games played.

Guerrero, who turns 28 next month, was also known for his supreme durability until last season. From 1998 through 2002, he averaged 158.6 games per year.

But last season, he played in just 112 games, batting .330 with 25 home runs and 79 RBIs. For six weeks, starting in early June, he was on the disabled list after experiencing pain in his lower back.

This topic was enough to roust Fernando Cuza, one of Guerrero's agents, from a cone of silence yesterday. Cuza, who also represents Tejada, has said little to the media this offseason, but he spoke at length when asked about the injury.

"He tweaked his back," Cuza said. "He went and saw one of the best back specialists in the world, Barth Green [from the University of Miami]. He rehabbed the back; he didn't have any invasive procedures. The same thing could happen to you and me when we bend over to tie our shoes."

After seeing Green and letting the back heal without surgery, Guerrero started doing a stretching program designed to prevent against further injury. He returned to the Montreal Expos' lineup on July 21 and hit .353 with 17 home runs and 46 RBIs the rest of the way.

Guerrero played in 62 of the Expos' final 64 games.

"If anybody has any concern about this, look at his numbers after he returned," Cuza said. "No other team has an issue with his back. They know he came back better than he was before."

Asked how the injury might be affecting Guerrero's offseason conditioning program in the Dominican Republic, Cuza said, "He's in excellent shape."

Guerrero turned down a five-year, $75 million offer from the Expos before declining arbitration last month. Orioles sources have said Guerrero's initial asking price to them was for eight years, $145 million.

Last month, a Los Angeles Dodgers official said his team was reluctant to give Guerrero anything longer than a four-year deal because of the back injury.

Guerrero has one of the most violent swings in baseball, the Dodgers official reasoned, and that swing puts a tremendous amount of torque on his back.

The Orioles can't help but be wary. Albert Belle averaged 160.6 games in the three years before he signed his five-year, $65 million contract in 1998. Scott Erickson had a reputation for never missing a start before the Orioles gave him his five-year, $32 million extension that same year.

Because of injuries, those two contracts were still strangling the franchise last season.

Privately, some Orioles insiders have said they are confident Guerrero's back will hold up fine. But they would want to insure the length of the contract, just as they did with Tejada's, and the insurance companies look at Guerrero's stint on the DL last season and jack up the rates.

So it matters less now how durable Guerrero was until 2003. Montreal has one of the hardest playing surfaces in baseball, an asphalt-like artificial turf, and visiting teams routinely rest players for at least one game when visiting Olympic Stadium.

Guerrero, who stole 40 bases in 2002 but just nine last season, would probably benefit significantly playing on the soft grass at Camden Yards. But even with the Orioles looking like the clear favorites to sign him, there's still no guarantee it will happen.

"I'm not going to comment on the discussions," Cuza said.

NOTES: The Orioles face a Thursday deadline to re-sign B.J. Surhoff, who declined their arbitration offer last month. Surhoff's agent, Greg Clifton, said yesterday that the sides are already close to a deal but simply need to finish some particulars. "B.J. doesn't have any great desire to go somewhere else," Clifton said. "I'm pretty optimistic we can get something done."

Orioles 2004 spring training schedule

Date Opponent Site Time

3/4 Florida Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/5 Florida Jupiter 1:05

3/6 Montreal Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/7 Florida Jupiter 1:10

3/8 Los Angeles Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/9 St. Louis Jupiter 1:05

3/10 Florida Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/11 Boston Fort Myers 1:05

3/12 Montreal Viera 1:05

3/13 New York (N) Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/14 Houston Kissimmee 1:05

3/15 New York (N) Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/16 Florida Jupiter 1:05

3/17 Houston Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/18 Minnesota Fort Myers 1:05

3/19 Los Angeles Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/20 St. Louis Jupiter 1:05

3/21 Boston Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/23 Montreal Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/24 Montreal Viera 1:05

3/25 St. Louis Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/26 Los Angeles Vero Beach 1:05

3/27 Florida Fort Lauderdale 7:05

3/28 New York (N) Port St. Lucie 1:10

3/29 Boston Ft. Myers 1:05

3/30 St. Louis Fort Lauderdale 1:05

3/31 Florida Fort Lauderdale 1:05

4/1 New York (N) Port St. Lucie 7:10

4/3 Cincinnati Chattanooga 1:05

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