O's near signing Padres catcher

R. Hernandez may get 4 years, $27M


DALLAS -- Pending a physical and some minor contractual issues, the Orioles will sign San Diego free-agent catcher Ramon Hernandez to a four-year deal worth around $27 million, according to team and industry sources.

One team source said that the club is hoping that the 29-year-old catcher, who has residences in both his native Venezuela and San Diego, will travel to Baltimore for the physical as early as tomorrow.

Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan confirmed the Orioles have made Hernandez an offer, but said no deal was imminent. Hernandez's agent, Eric Goldschmidt, didn't return calls seeking comment.

"We are having conversations with Hernandez and they are ongoing," Flanagan said. "I am not comfortable categorizing it. There are conversations going on with people all the time. It bounces all over the place."

San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers said last night that the Padres were probably going to offer the catcher arbitration, a decision that had to be made by midnight. Hernandez is a Type A free agent, meaning the Orioles will have to send San Diego a supplemental second-round pick as compensation.

"The way we look at it is we don't have anything to lose," said Towers on the expected decision to offer Hernandez free agency. Though he wouldn't say it, Towers, who also acquired Boston backstop Doug Mirabelli in a trade yesterday, seemed resigned to losing Hernandez as the Padres made closer Trevor Hoffman and outfielder Brian Giles their top two priorities.

"The worst-case scenario is [he returns to the Padres on] a one-year deal and he's a pretty good catcher. And if he does do a deal with another club, you get a couple of draft picks."

The Orioles, who have an extra second-round pick anyway after losing closer B.J. Ryan to Toronto, have no qualms of surrendering a draft choice for the catcher, who hit .290 last season with 12 home runs and 58 RBIs, but is best known for his work in calling a game and handling a pitching staff.

"He's one of the best catchers in the game," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy, who also had little hope of Hernandez returning. "He does such a good job handling the staff. I've seen what he's done for a young staff with [Jake] Peavy and [Adam] Eaton. They are very comfortable throwing to him. It's invaluable for a ballclub to have the things he can do for a staff."

With Hernandez close to being on board, the Orioles made several calls yesterday to gauge interest in their current everyday catcher Javy Lopez, according to two industry sources. One of the teams they talked to was the Los Angeles Angels and a deal that included Angels veteran outfielder Steve Finley was at least discussed, according to a source.

Lopez's agent, Chuck Berry, said yesterday that he was not surprised that the Orioles were close to signing Hernandez, but he wanted to talk to Orioles brass before commenting further.

Two high-ranking Orioles officials said that the club would like to keep Lopez, who is in the last year of his contract, but recognized that he could be a valuable trade chip to land pitching or an outfielder. Lopez has said before that he wouldn't mind catching less and playing first base, but he'd not be comfortable being an everyday designated hitter.

"You would have to think about it some," said Flanagan when asked if Hernandez's addition could lead to the Orioles trading Lopez. "But I'd think there would be other avenues with Javy where you wouldn't need to trade him."

Still seeking help for their outfield, the Orioles have expressed interest in two free agents, Kenny Lofton and Jeromy Burnitz, according to industry sources. They also remain interested in Jeff Conine, who could play both outfield and first base.

The Marlins and Conine discussed several options, including a one-year, $1.5 million deal that he did not accept. He was not offered arbitration and cannot re-sign with the Marlins until May 1, which he is not considering, according to a source familiar with Conine's plans. Several industry sources believe that the Orioles, who train near Conine's Florida home, are the leading candidate for him, although there are at least two other teams that remain interested.

The Orioles remain in the mix for Nomar Garciaparra, who has no formal Orioles' offer standing at this time. The Orioles offered Garciaparra a one-year, $4 million deal earlier this month according to an Orioles source.

The Orioles' talks with Cincinnati, which focused on Reds slugger Adam Dunn, are pretty much over, according to an industry source. The Reds, said the source, were adamant about Erik Bedard's inclusion in the deal.

"I can't envision one guy that is out there available right now [on the trade market], who we'd give up Bedard for," said a high-ranking Orioles official. "Where we are right now with us still looking for pitching, I just don't think we can do that."


Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.

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