O's hardly defeated after losing out on Guerrero

Team looking to finish 3-year deal for Ponson



January 12, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The call from the Vladimir Guerrero camp came after midnight for Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan, and it confirmed the news that had been leaking slowly throughout the baseball industry all Saturday evening.

Guerrero was turning his back on the Orioles' six-year, $78 million offer to sign with another team, agent Fernando Cuza said.

By then, Flanagan had already heard.

With a stealth maneuver, the Anaheim Angels had reached agreement with Guerrero on a contract believed to be worth $70 million over five years.

When Cuza called, Flanagan was ready - or make that eager - to move on.

"I'm not disappointed at all," Flanagan said yesterday, as Angels officials confirmed they had reached agreement with Guerrero, pending a physical exam. "We went into the Guerrero thing thinking it was a luxury, not a necessity."

The money the Orioles saved on Guerrero will eventually go to good use.

Flanagan wouldn't say how, but team insiders said they probably won't pursue aging All-Stars Ivan Rodriguez and Greg Maddux, unless their prices hit rock bottom.

Instead, like many teams, the Orioles are already looking ahead to next fall's free-agent class, with Carlos Beltran, Magglio Ordonez and Kerry Wood heading the list.

After next season, the Orioles will shed another $18 million in payroll, just with the money they save on Marty Cordova, Omar Daal, Buddy Groom and David Segui.

So the next offseason could play out like this one, with a horde of new talent joining the mix.

"I keep saying, this isn't a one-year fix," Flanagan said.

Having already revamped the middle of their batting order by signing Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles were trying to close a three-year deal for free-agent starting pitcher Sidney Ponson last night.

Guerrero was one of the Orioles' primary targets, but team insiders privately insist Tejada - with his 2002 Most Valuable Player credentials and his streak of 594 consecutive games played for the Oakland Athletics - was always higher on their list.

After starting Guerrero with a five-year, $65 million proposal, the Orioles added a sixth year to the offer late last month. When Guerrero's camp didn't bite, the Orioles started realizing he probably didn't want to play in Baltimore.

Maybe it came down to the larger Hispanic community in the Los Angeles area. Maybe the right fielder hates crab cakes. The Orioles still don't know, but they were the only team that guaranteed six years.

As a member of the Montreal Expos, he spent 39 games on the disabled list with a back injury last season, and lingering concerns about the problem kept the New York Mets from guaranteeing more than three years.

"We thought we had met all the criteria to get the deal done," Flanagan said, "and it didn't happen."

Mazzilli likes lineup

So why wasn't Flanagan weeping into his coffee mug yesterday? Maybe it's the daily conversations he has with his new manager, Lee Mazzilli, who excitedly scribbles out potential starting lineups with each new move.

Oh, by the way, the Orioles had other news Saturday. They agreed to a deal with first baseman Palmeiro, an old favorite at Camden Yards who has slugged at least 38 home runs in each of the past nine seasons, the past five with the Texas Rangers.

In Palmeiro, Tejada and Lopez, the Orioles have signed three players who combined for 108 home runs last season. Throw in right fielder Jay Gibbons, and Mazzilli now has four middle-of-the-order hitters who each produced 100 RBIs last season.

"You have to be happy with our offseason acquisitions, no question," Mazzilli said in a telephone interview from his home in Greenwich, Conn. "[Orioles owner] Peter Angelos made a commitment to the fans, and he went above and beyond."

Mazzilli wasn't going to reveal his batting order just yet, but he has certainly been thinking about it.

"We still have a long way to go to spring training," he said. "But you look at the three guys we added, there's your middle of the lineup, 3-4-5, right there. We can have speed on the top and speed at the bottom. We can go left-right-left-right. That's what you want to have."

Next, it's pitching

After signing Palmeiro, the Orioles' payroll commitments for next season, counting their arbitration-eligible players, increased to about $45 million.

In September, Angelos indicated he was willing to take the payroll past last year's mark of $60 million, but he added, "if the opportunities are there."

Guerrero was one opportunity lost. That doesn't mean the Orioles have to spend his $13 million a year on someone else.

Ponson was the Orioles' most pressing priority last night, and they are trying to re-sign him to a three-year deal for about $21 million. He turned down that same amount before the Orioles traded him to the San Francisco Giants last season.

Once that gets decided, the Orioles will probably start combing for bargains.

Just last week, their former All-Star second baseman, Roberto Alomar, signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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