Palmeiro close to rejoining Orioles

Contract length remains undecided

slugger twice helped team reach ALCS

As Ranger, he reached 528 HRs

Progress also reported in Guerrero talks

deal for Surhoff moves forward

January 08, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Five years and 214 home runs after leaving the Orioles as a free agent, Rafael Palmeiro appears to be headed back to Baltimore.

The Orioles are close to an agreement to re-sign Palmeiro, team officials said last night, with the sides still negotiating whether to make it a two-year deal or a one-year deal with an option for 2005.

Palmeiro, 39, who hit his 500th career home run last year for the Texas Rangers, apparently not only wants to return to Camden Yards, he also wants to play first base.

And with team sources saying significant progress was also made yesterday in negotiations with free-agent right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, it looks like right fielder Jay Gibbons will spend much of next season as the team's designated hitter.

Asked about the Palmeiro negotiations, a top Orioles official said, "You can pretty much bet that deal's going to be made."

With regard to the Guerrero negotiations, the official added, "I think we're in the driver's seat."

Palmeiro, Guerrero and shortstop Miguel Tejada are represented by the same agents - Fernando Cuza and Diego Benz - and after signing Tejada to a six-year, $72 million deal last month, the Orioles are giving new meaning to one-stop shopping.

After spending yesterday in conference calls with Cuza and Benz, Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan also tended to other business. They are still trying to re-sign free-agent pitcher Sidney Ponson, and Flanagan was expected to have another discussion with Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, late last night.

Earlier, Beattie moved closer to re-signing veteran slugger B.J. Surhoff to a minor-league contract similar to the one Surhoff signed last year. A year ago, Surhoff agreed to a $1 million deal, but the money was only guaranteed if he made the team out of spring training.

Surhoff, 39, made the team, of course, and wound up hitting .295 in 93 games.

The Orioles have notified the left-handed hitting Surhoff they intend to reduce his role for next season after using him in the outfield for 27 games last season.

The sides must reach an agreement before today's deadline or Surhoff will become a free agent, but his agent, Greg Clifton, sounded optimistic last night.

"We continue to make progress," Clifton said. "We're going to work late into the night, and early into the morning in an effort to keep B.J. in an Oriole uniform."

The team has a five-year, $65 million offer on the table to Guerrero, and though the sides haven't moved much, there were indications yesterday that Guerrero's camp was softening.

Guerrero, who turned down a five-year, $65 million offer from the Montreal Expos before declining arbitration, initially asked the Orioles for eight years and $145 million. His price dropped to seven years for $105 million, and with no other team besides the Orioles said to be offering him five years, his price has dropped again.

Radio reports last night had Guerrero close to signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but a top Dodgers source refuted that, saying his team's talks with Guerrero were still in the exploratory stage.

Whether or not the team can bridge the gap with Guerrero, its officials feel the offense is going to get a tremendous boost with Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez and Palmeiro.

After signing as a free agent with the Orioles in 1993, Palmeiro blossomed as a power hitter. Following the strike-shortened season of 1994, he began a streak of nine consecutive seasons with at least 38 home runs and 104 RBIs.

He helped lead the Orioles to the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997, but left to rejoin the Rangers after the 1998 season.

It was a bitter transition as Palmeiro left a five-year, $50 million offer from the Orioles on the table to sign a five-year, $45 million deal with Texas.

Though he'll turn 40 on Sept. 24, Palmeiro has shown no signs of slowing down, playing in at least 154 games every year since 1995.

Last season, he hit .260 with 38 home runs and 112 RBIs.

With 528 career home runs and 2,780 hits, there's a chance Palmeiro could reach the 600-home run and 3,000-hit plateaus with two more healthy seasons. Unless negotiations crumble at the last minute, Palmeiro could have a chance to reach those milestones as an Oriole.

The team had planned to move Gibbons to first base if it signed Guerrero, but Palmeiro is a veteran of the position and has expressed a desire to play more games there.

Last season, with Mark Teixeira getting most of the playing time at first base for Texas, Palmeiro played 55 games at first and spent 96 as the Rangers' DH.

Palmeiro played 97 games at first base in 2002, and 113 games there in 2001.

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