Orioles better `best' offer for Guerrero

5-year, $65 million pitch increased to $67.5M after threat from Mets

Entire sum would be guaranteed

N.Y. total believed more but laced with incentives

January 10, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Sensing a growing threat from the New York Mets to sign free-agent right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, the Orioles have added to their own best offer in recent days.

After sitting on a five-year, $65 million proposal for weeks, Orioles officials said they have recently increased the offer to five years, $67.5 million.

At $13.5 million a season, that's not as much money as Guerrero could reportedly get from the Mets, but all of it is guaranteed.

Reports surfaced yesterday that the Mets have offered Guerrero a three-year, $30 million base salary with incentives and two vesting options that could make it a five-year, $72 million deal.

Though one Mets official called it "a hoax," the reported contract terms were detailed elaborately on an ESPN.com message board last night.

To reach the full $72 million from the Mets, Guerrero would need 1,200 plate appearances over the first three seasons, and 500 more in both 2007 and 2008.

Last year, after spending 39 games on the disabled list with a herniated disc in his lower back, Guerrero finished with 467 plate appearances for the Montreal Expos.

The Orioles have not been talking about incentives or option years with Guerrero, and in the end, that could be what sets them apart. Guerrero hails from the Dominican Republic, and there has been widespread speculation that he is shying away from Baltimore because it doesn't have a large enough Dominican community.

Ultimately, the guaranteed money could bridge the gap.

At 27, Guerrero is considered the top free agent on the market, but coming off a recent back injury, he is still somewhat of a risk.

But the talks with Guerrero have been painfully slow, with one top Orioles official calling them "a roller coaster ride."

Guerrero's agents - Fernando Cuza and Diego Benz - represent free-agent first baseman Rafael Palmerio, who is close to re-signing with the Orioles.

But the Palmeiro deal isn't quite done yet, two Orioles sources said, as Palmeiro is still said to be holding out for a little more money.

Trying to remind Guerrero and Palmeiro that the team has other options, the Orioles have kept open the possibility of going after free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Having already signed catcher Javy Lopez, this may seem like a far-fetched idea, but team officials say one could catch while the other served as designated hitter.

Word kept spreading yesterday that the Orioles had issued a deadline with their latest offer to Guerrero, by saying they would turn their attention to Rodriguez if Guerrero didn't accept. But a top team official said that wasn't the case.

Speaking only generally about the process, Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said: "We don't pit player against player. We don't bid against ourselves, and we don't let external forces dictate where we can play."

From all accounts, the Orioles' negotiations to re-sign free- agent pitcher Sidney Ponson have been going much more smoothly. Though the sides didn't reach agreement last night, progress was made, and the team is still hoping to sign Ponson to a three-year deal for about $21 million.

Ponson turned down a three-year, $21 million offer from the Orioles before they traded him to the San Francisco Giants at the July 31 deadline.

Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, declined to comment, and Cuza and Benz did not return phone calls yesterday.

"I think there are some players you feel better about than others," Orioles vice president Jim Beattie said. "I don't think we're feeling pessimistic about any of the talks at all. We continue to have good conversations, and I don't feel like we're heading down a dead-end street with any of them."

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