If the rest of the baseball industry has been sitting back and waiting for the Orioles to play their trump card in the Vladimir Guerrero negotiations, it turns out they played it before New Year's Day.
Late last month, the Orioles made a six-year, $78 million offer to Guerrero, team officials disclosed yesterday, as speculation mounted that Guerrero was close to signing with the Anaheim Angels.
"If it's a done deal, we're not the team," a top Orioles official said last night at 10:15.
The Orioles' offer was still standing, with no deadline attached, team officials said, but their patience was wearing thin.
"This [$78 million offer] was out there a week before any of this New York [Mets] stuff started," the team official said. "We met them at a sixth year. We took the step. And that was before New Year's."
Guerrero, who turns 28 next month, entered the offseason as the top free agent on the market, but until this past week, there was hardly a bidding war for his services.
The Mets offered Guerrero a three-year, $30 million contract with incentives and two vesting options that could make it a five-year, $71 million deal.
Then last night, in a stirring development, Mets general manager Jim Duquette said Guerrero's lead agent, Arn Tellem, called him to say that Guerrero had decided to sign with another undisclosed team that had come forward with its offer on Thursday.
Duquette said he did not know which team Tellem meant, but the Mets were told Guerrero was going to take a deal that would have paid him less than $71 million. So that would seem to exclude the Orioles.
Other candidates included the Florida Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
An industry source told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the Marlins had made a one-year, $13 million offer to Guerrero. A high-ranking Dodgers official said he did not think his team was involved in the process, but he did not completely rule out the possibility.
In an interview with the New York Post, Tellem kept open the possibility that two teams were still alive. "All I can say is that the Mets made a good-faith attempt, and Vladimir decided to sign with another team," Tellem said.
Duquette's comments left the Orioles scrambling to find out if they were indeed out of the running. Team officials said they had not been told they were out by Tellem, Fernando Cuza, Diego Benz or any of Guerrero's other agents.
What made that more surprising is that only hours earlier, the Orioles had completed a deal with another of Cuza's clients, Rafael Palmeiro.
But Orioles officials also sounded almost nonplussed by the news, as if they knew it was coming. "The world will go on," another top team official said.
In mid-December, when most teams were saying they didn't have the money to sign Guerrero, the Orioles offered a five-year, $65 million contract.
Later in the month, they increased that offer to five years for $67.5 million, saying they didn't want to guarantee a sixth year because of lingering concerns about Guerrero's back. He spent 39 games on the disabled list last season with a herniated disc in his lower back, then returned to play in 62 of the Montreal Expos' final 64 games.
Duquette said the Mets did not want to guarantee a five-year offer "based on the advice from our doctors [about Guerrero's back]."
Guerrero's agents made an initial proposal to the Orioles asking for eight years and $145 million. They lowered those demands to seven years and $105 million, and for some time, neither side seemed willing to budge.
Eventually, the Orioles did.
After signing shortstop Miguel Tejada to a six-year, $72 million deal, and catcher Javy Lopez to a three-year, $22.5 million deal, the Orioles offered Guerrero the richest deal of the offseason.
But instead of softening, Guerrero's agents held firm, playing coy with the Orioles as they solicited interest from other teams. One top Orioles official said he thought the Guerrero camp was holding out for six years and $90 million.
That would be $15 million per season. Guerrero already turned down $15 million per year (five years, $75 million) from the Expos before declining arbitration. So far, the free-agent market obviously hasn't been as fruitful as he may have thought.
A year ago, the Philadelphia Phillies gave Jim Thome the richest deal of the offseason when they signed him to a six-year, $85.2 million deal. That's $14.2 million per season, and there is implicit pressure on Cuza and Benz to re-raise the bar with Guerrero.
The Orioles weren't willing to do that. They were more eager to compromise with Tejada, Lopez and Palmeiro because shortstop, catcher and first base were three positions they absolutely needed to fill. But if the Orioles were to lose out on Guerrero, they would still have Jay Gibbons to play right field.
"Maybe [Guerrero] just did us a favor," one Orioles official said late last night.