Would-be Orioles have no regrets on signing elsewhere

I. Rodriguez, Guerrero content with new teams

July 13, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON -- For the third consecutive year, the Orioles won't have any players in the starting lineup for tonight's All-Star Game. Shortstop Miguel Tejada, the team's lone representative and the winner of last night's Home Run Derby, will be waiting his turn on the bench.

But anyone who followed the team's offseason moves last winter will find two familiar names high in the American League batting order.

Batting second, the catcher, Ivan Rodriguez.

Batting third, the right fielder, Vladimir Guerrero.

Yes, after turning their back on the Orioles' money, those two are faring just fine, thank you.

Rodriguez is trying to become the first catcher to win an American League batting title. Guerrero is trying to become the first player to win the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Boston Red Sox in 1967.

The Detroit Tigers were 43-119 last year, but with Rodriguez (batting .369 with 12 home runs and 59 RBIs) and several other key additions in the fold, they enter the All-Star break at 42-45, just 5 1/2 games behind the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central.

Guerrero, meanwhile, has helped keep the Anaheim Angels in the thick of the AL West race despite a rash of injuries to the rest of their lineup. He's making a strong case for his first Most Valuable Player award, batting .345 with 20 home runs and 77 RBIs.

And the Orioles? Well, their problems have primarily been pitching-related, but they're wallowing in last place. So tonight's 75th All-Star Game at Minute Maid Park may give them a twinge of regret over what might have been.

"I really was thinking about going to Baltimore, but I don't know what happened," Rodriguez said yesterday. "At the last moment, they wanted to go in a different direction. But that's over. I'm a Tiger, and I'm happy there."

The first big move the Orioles made last offseason was signing Tejada to his six-year, $72 million contract. Tejada has rewarded them by hitting .311 with 15 homers and 75 RBIs, playing every game and energizing the club with his presence.

Then they went after their catcher, and as one of the few teams looking to fill that position, they basically had their pick between Rodriguez and Javy Lopez. They offered Rodriguez three years at $21 million, and Lopez three years at $18 million and waited for one of the two players to budge.

Rodriguez, 32, held out for a fourth year, which he eventually got from the Tigers, who gave him a four-year, $40 million deal.

Lopez, 33, finally agreed to a three-year, $22.5 million deal, and it's not like he's been a slouch. He entered the All-Star break batting .321 with 12 homers and 42 RBIs.

But even after signing Lopez, the Orioles gave some thought to adding Rodriguez as well, so they could save some wear and tear on both catchers by letting one catch and the other serve as designated hitter.

After winning a World Series with the Florida Marlins, Rodriguez hasn't stopped hitting. His batting average leads the majors, and he was simply ridiculous in June, when he went 43-for-86. Yes, that's .500 on the nose.

"He's been everything that I would have dreamed of," Tigers manager Alan Trammell told the Detroit Free Press.

Then there's Guerrero.

He was widely considered the top player on the market, but several teams had concerns about a back injury that kept him on the disabled list for 39 games last season.

For weeks, the Orioles had the best offer on the table, at five years, $65 million. Later, they increased that offer to six years, $78 million, but the Angels swooped in and got him with a five-year, $70 million deal with an option for 2009 that can bring the deal to $82 million.

Still, the Orioles insisted they weren't disappointed.

With Tejada, Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro (one-year with an option, $4.5 million), they had addressed their needs at shortstop, catcher and first base.

They already had a right fielder. Jay Gibbons was coming off a 100-RBI season, and they couldn't wait to see how he would fare in a lineup loaded with other good hitters.

But they barely had a chance to find out. Gibbons suffered a herniated disc in his lower back during April and hasn't been the same since. He went on the disabled list, and soon went back on again after tests showed that he had a torn hip flexor muscle.

For the season, Gibbons is batting .223 with six home runs and 28 RBIs.

In a way, it's been a cruel coincidence. Guerrero was the one with the concerns about his back -- and with 4 1/2 years remaining on his uninsured contract, the Angels sure aren't out of the woods yet -- but he has played in 85 of the team's 87 games.

Ultimately, Guerrero said he based his decision to pick Anaheim largely on the large Hispanic population of the Los Angeles area. Angels first base coach Alfredo Griffin, one of the most respected baseball figures in their native Dominican Republic, led their recruiting push.

"I feel very good there," Guerrero said in Spanish yesterday through his agent and interpreter, Fernando Cuza. "People always coming up to me and saying, `Vlady, how you doing?' I feel very comfortable in Anaheim."

The Angels are just glad to have him. They've seen Guerrero put up some big numbers in a hurry. On June 2, he had nine RBIs in one game against the Boston Red Sox, with two home runs, a double and a single.

And that was off Pedro Martinez, Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke.

"I've never seen a night like that," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after that game. "People are going to read that and think it's a misprint."

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