Orioles slow down pursuit of Burnett

Team wants to keep Penn, is wary of extension issue

July 23, 2005|By Dan Connolly and Jeff Zrebiec | Dan Connolly and Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Several new wrinkles have emerged in the Orioles' two week-long pursuit of Florida Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett, including potentially dealing beleaguered starter Sidney Ponson, but the holdups apparently haven't changed.

If anything, one club source said, the Orioles are even more reticent to trade top pitching prospect Hayden Penn, relievers Jorge Julio and Steve Kline and outfielder Larry Bigbie because they don't believe Burnett will sign a contract extension.

The source said the team, including owner Peter Angelos, has cooled on the idea of dealing for the 28-year-old Burnett because he is expected to file for free agency at season's end - making him a two-month rental.

And there are those within the organization who wonder if Burnett, who has never won more than 12 games in a season, would make the transition to the American League quickly enough to lead the Orioles to a postseason berth.

To further hamstring the proposed deal with Florida, the Orioles have all but decided they don't want to acquire Florida third baseman Mike Lowell, even if half of the $21 million owed to him through 2007 is picked up by the Marlins or another team.

If Lowell and Penn, a 20-year-old right-hander considered the Orioles' best minor league pitcher, were removed from the deal, the Orioles would be more apt to trade Julio and others for Burnett, the source said.

Since the Orioles are not the only team interested in Burnett, though, it's unlikely the Marlins would jump at such an offer.

The source refused to pronounce the Florida deal dead, but said it was "highly unlikely" that the trade will happen if it involved Lowell or Penn.

The Orioles had hoped to get a 72-hour negotiating window and persuade Burnett to play in Baltimore, near where his wife grew up in Bowie. But the Orioles are resigned that Burnett, only two months away from testing the free-agent waters, wouldn't agree to an extension now.

He is believed to be seeking a four-year deal worth at least $8 million a year. Any contract extension with the Orioles would have to represent "free-agent-type money," one industry source said. The Orioles have been reluctant in the past to give such large deals to pitchers.

Meanwhile, the Orioles front office continues to look at other ways to fortify the team for a stretch run, and Ponson has become the latest prominent Oriole mentioned in trade talks.

One growing possibility, according to several industry sources, would be to trade Ponson to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Richard Hidalgo, who makes $5 million in 2005 but is a free agent at season's end. The Orioles would have to absorb most, if not all, of Ponson's salary to make that happen, one industry source said.

The Orioles also have talked to San Diego about trading Ponson for first baseman Phil Nevin, who is owed $11 million next year.

Nevin, 34, is hitting .262 with nine homers and 47 RBIs after a season in which he hit 26 home runs and drove in 105 runs. Nevin recently returned to the Padres lineup after missing a month with a strained oblique muscle. He is an attractive option for the Orioles, who are looking for a power-hitting, right-handed bat and a player who would be able to spell 40-year-old Rafael Palmeiro on occasion at first.

One industry source said the Orioles would "do it in a heartbeat" if they could get Nevin for Ponson, even if it meant an extra $1 million next year.

For the Rangers, Hidalgo, 30, is hitting .216 with 15 homers and 40 RBIs. The right-hander is a career .269 hitter with 170 home runs but has struggled since joining Texas this season.

At one point yesterday, there apparently were serious discussions among the Orioles, Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays that would have sent Ponson, Bigbie, Julio, Penn and possibly Kline to Florida for Burnett and Lowell, according to sources. The Marlins then would have traded Ponson to the Devil Rays for left-handed reliever Trever Miller. The Marlins, who would have shed Lowell's contract, reportedly would have paid about eight of Ponson's $10 million salary for 2006.

However, Ponson, who is scheduled to start tonight against Tampa Bay, has a limited no-trade clause that prohibits him from being dealt to 10 specified teams without his permission. The perennial-doormat Devil Rays are one of those teams, and it is unlikely that Ponson would give the Orioles approval for the trade.

San Diego and Texas are not on Ponson's list, so he could be traded to either place, one industry source confirmed.

"Neither Sidney nor I have been approached by the Orioles seeking Sidney's consent to be traded to Tampa or any other team," said Barry Praver, Ponson's agent.

The Orioles have grown frustrated with Ponson's struggles on the mound and off, which includes two offseason arrests. He is 7-8 with a 6.04 ERA, the third-worst mark among starters in the majors. Opponents are hitting .329 against him.

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