After long denying any interest in acquiring Sammy Sosa, the Orioles appear to be nearing a deal for the Chicago Cubs outfielder that would represent their boldest move of an otherwise slow and often frustrating offseason.
Team officials have been deflecting the rumors, pointing to Sosa's age (36), declining production and hefty contract. But the industry buzz reached a new level of intensity last night, and multiple sources said a trade should be announced early next week.
A high-ranking major league official said the commissioner's office has been notified of a pending deal, which is believed to include Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston and two minor leaguers - second baseman Mike Fontenot and pitcher David Crouthers.
Calls to majority owner Peter Angelos and team executives Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan weren't returned last night, but earlier in the day, one club official said, "There's nothing burning."
The temperature changed late last night, when it became more certain that Sosa was headed to Baltimore.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said no trade was imminent, one of the few public comments coming from either side.
To facilitate a deal, Sosa would have to waive his no-trade clause and stipulations that assure him money if he's sent to another team. The Cubs would assume most of his salary.
The Cubs owe Sosa at least $25 million, including $17 million next season and a $4.5 million buyout if they don't exercise his $18 million option for 2006. The option becomes guaranteed if he's traded, which would require a restructuring of his contract.
Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the Cubs were also talking to the Washington Nationals about a deal to send Sosa to the new team.
Sosa, who hasn't played in the American League since 1991, is a career .277 hitter in 16 seasons, with 574 homers and 1,530 RBIs. He has struck out 2,110 times in 8,021 at-bats.
Sosa slumped to .253 last year, with 35 homers and 80 RBIs. He was named the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1998 after hitting 66 homers and driving in 158 runs. He placed second in 2001 after collecting 64 homers and 160 RBIs.
Sosa's on-base percentage plus slugging percentage has fallen from 1.174 in 2001 to .849 last season.
The seven-time All-Star, one of the more popular players in the majors during his time with the Cubs, was suspended in 2003 for using a corked bat. In the Cubs' regular-season finale last year, Sosa arrived at Wrigley Field late and left the game early. He was fined $87,500.
With Sosa taking over right field, the Orioles likely would move Jay Gibbons to first base after they lost out on Carlos Delgado and Richie Sexson this winter.
Meanwhile, team officials spoke yesterday with Magglio Ordonez's agent, Scott Boras, who has shipped the outfielder's medical records to the Orioles. Their doctors intended to evaluate the results of the magnetic resonance imaging tests taken on Ordonez's left knee and review his medical history since undergoing two surgeries in 2004 - an agenda that no longer would seem necessary with Sosa in uniform.
Ordonez is scheduled to arrive in California next week and be available for workouts over a 10-day period.
The Detroit Tigers, apparently satisfied with the medical reports, have made a five-year offer for Ordonez believed to be worth $11 million or $12 million per season, and they continued talks with Boras yesterday. Boras made a counterproposal - he's believed to be seeking a seven-year deal - and is awaiting a response.
At least one Orioles official rated Ordonez higher than Carlos Beltran, who received a seven-year, $119 million contract from the New York Mets. But Ordonez brings some heavy baggage, twice needing surgery for torn cartilage and treatment for bone marrow edema.
Ordonez, who turned 31 yesterday, rejected a five-year, $70 million contract from the Chicago White Sox last year, but the knee injury limited him to 52 games.
The Texas Rangers also have shown interest in Ordonez, though he doesn't want to be their designated hitter. The same proposed arrangement caused Delgado to reject their four-year, $48 million offer.
The Mets could become involved in the bidding if they trade Mike Cameron or Cliff Floyd. The Cubs most likely would have interest once Sosa is moved.