Orioles, Ponson closer to deal

Contract could be similar to one he rejected in July

decision may come today

Palmeiro talks progress, too

O's officials less optimistic about adding Guerrero

Surhoff returns to fold

January 09, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Having already moved close to re-signing first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles turned their attention toward another familiar face yesterday and came away feeling confident they can get pitcher Sidney Ponson to return, too.

After narrowing the gap with their latest offer, team officials said they were hopeful they could re-sign Ponson to a contract very similar to the three-year, $21 million deal he turned down before they traded him to the San Francisco Giants at the end of July.

So on a day when club officials were expressing less optimism about their negotiations with free-agent right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, they were brightened by the prospects of an Orioles comeback tour with Palmeiro and Ponson.

Late last night, the Orioles also re-signed outfielder B.J. Surhoff to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp. Surhoff, 39, who hit .295 last season in 93 games, will make $800,000 if he makes the big league roster, and the deal also includes a package of incentives.

At 27, Ponson is considered the top young starting pitcher remaining on the free-agent market, and he would be a welcome addition to a depleted Orioles staff. Most of the team's offseason focus has been on improving the offense.

Team sources say the Orioles have yet to increase their five-year, $65 million offer to Guerrero, who is said to be clinging close to his demand of $105 million over seven years. The New York Times is reporting today that the New York Mets have made a three-year offer to Guerrero, believed to be for $13 million a year or less.

One Orioles official said the Guerrero negotiations likely will stretch at least into next week, but he added, "We're moving closer on Ponson and Palmeiro."

The Ponson decision could come today for simple logistical reasons. For one thing, Ponson is already in Baltimore.

He still keeps an apartment here and has been in town this week taking care of other business. He stopped by the B&O warehouse yesterday, team insiders said, to pick up some of his things and say hello to a few friends.

Tomorrow, Ponson is scheduled to leave on a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., along with Orioles outfielder Marty Cordova and longtime bench coach Elrod Hendricks. Ponson has made annual appearances on the "Orioles Cruise" for several years.

That group won't return to the country until Jan. 17, so that could add some urgency to the team's latest round of talks with Ponson's agent, Barry Praver.

Last night, Praver would not detail the negotiations.

"All I can say at this time is we're still talking," Praver said.

Last season, Ponson started showing the promise the Orioles had been waiting so long to see, going 14-6 with a 3.77 ERA. But they couldn't get him to agree to a contract extension, starting him with a three-year, $15 million offer and raising it to $21 million shortly before the trade.

At the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Orioles traded Ponson to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Kurt Ainsworth, Damian Moss and Ryan Hannaman.

Ponson went 3-6 with a 3.71 ERA for the Giants and surrendered a three-run lead in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Florida Marlins, an eventual 9-5 loss for San Francisco.

Still, Ponson would almost definitely return as the ace of an Orioles starting staff that currently has Ainsworth, Rodrigo Lopez, Eric DuBose, Matt Riley and Omar Daal.

Yesterday, the Orioles announced plans to open the season April 4 against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards in a game televised nationally on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball.

For the Orioles, who last were host to an ESPN Sunday night game in 1999, it was a nod to their latest free-agent additions of shortstop Miguel Tejada and catcher Javy Lopez. But unless they plan to shore up their starting staff, the Opening Night pitching matchup could be billed as "Pedro vs. Rodrigo."

The Red Sox likely would go with three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez.

And, the Orioles could counter with Lopez, last year's Opening Day starter. At last check, Lopez was 1-5 with a 4.69 ERA for the Culiacan Tomato Growers in the Mexican Winter League.

NOTES: Besides Surhoff, the Orioles have invited nine other nonroster players to spring training: catchers Raul Casanova, Bill Haselman and Carlos Mendez; infielders Napoleon Calzado, Eddy Garabito and Luis Lopez; outfielders Chad Mottola and Pedro Swann; and right-handed pitcher Darwin Cubillan. Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training Feb. 20, and the full squad will report Feb. 24.

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