O's, Mora agree on three-year contract

Arbitration is avoided

$10.5 million guaranteed

Baseball

January 29, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The most productive offensive season of Melvin Mora's career has spawned his most lucrative contract.

The Orioles' lone All-Star representative last summer, Mora avoided a salary arbitration hearing next month by agreeing to terms on a three-year, $10.5 million deal.

Mora, who turns 32 on Monday, batted .317 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs in 96 games. He started at a variety of positions, including all three in the outfield, second base and shortstop.

The Orioles project him as their regular third baseman this season, which would put him in the same infield as free-agent additions Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro.

"We felt like he was a valuable commodity," said Mike Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations. "We believe he's going to be a terrific third baseman."

With Mora's salary set for three years, it also could become easier for the Orioles to trade him before the contract expires if he continues to hit well and attract interest because of his versatility.

"I think it was a good deal for both sides," Flanagan said.

Along with a $1 million signing bonus, Mora will earn $2 million this year, $3.5 million in 2005 and $4 million in 2006. The deal also includes performance bonuses that could total $350,000 in each season.

Mora, who earned $1.725 million last season, was acquired in a July 2000 trade with the New York Mets. The Orioles offered him $2.4 million earlier this month, when salary proposals were exchanged, and he countered at $3.3 million.

Negotiations on a multi-year deal began in November and heated up again after the Orioles signed pitcher Sidney Ponson and could direct more of their attention toward Mora.

"It's great because I don't have to worry about arbitration," he said. "And it's more great because I'll be able to stay here with my family and with the Baltimore Orioles."

Mora crafted a 23-game hitting streak last season, third longest in franchise history, and led the American League in batting from June 9 until the last day before the break. Because of injuries, he didn't obtain enough plate appearances over the second half to qualify for the title.

A torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee ended Mora's season on Sept. 13. He didn't need surgery.

"My left side looks better than my right side. It's stronger because I've been working that leg for a while. I'm thinking it's 120 percent," said Mora, who also was injured after being hit on the right hand by Greg Maddux on June 20 and in the face by Anaheim's John Lackey exactly one month later. He was on the disabled list from Aug. 5 to Sept. 2 with a bruised right wrist.

"I hope I can stay on the field for all season. I've gotten hit so many times the last couple years. I hope nothing happens this year and I can stay healthy," Mora said.

Though he's expected to start at third base, Mora said, "I know my situation. If somebody gets hurt, I'm the first option to move. That's why I never throw my gloves away."

The Orioles have signed three of their arbitration-eligible players, including second baseman Jerry Hairston and center fielder Luis Matos, who agreed to one-year deals. Outfielder Jay Gibbons and reliever B.J. Ryan remain unsigned and could have their salaries determined by an arbitrator next month.

In other news, the Orioles signed utility player Clay Bellinger, 35, and left-hander Rob Ramsay, 30, to minor league contracts and invited them to spring training. If nothing else, they could fill some holes at Triple-A Ottawa.

Bellinger spent parts of four seasons in the majors with the New York Yankees and Anaheim Angels before batting .268 with 16 homers and 54 RBIs for Triple-A Fresno last year. He appeared in two games with the Angels in 2002.

Bellinger signed with the Orioles as a free agent in 1995 but left the organization after one year. He's played every position in the majors except catcher.

Ramsay split last season between Triple-A Portland and Single-A Lake Elsinore, going a combined 3-1 with a 3.93 ERA. He was 1-3 with a 3.40 in 43 games with the Seattle Mariners in 1999 and 2000.

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