Lopez-for-Erstad talks cool

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DALLAS -- Orioles officials returned home to frigid Baltimore last night after four exhausting days at baseball's winter meetings, with a new right-handed setup man, a new catcher on the way and a sense of optimism that more additions could arrive shortly.

When word of free-agent catcher Ramon Hernandez's deal with the Orioles leaked out Wednesday night, a couple of teams called the Orioles about the availability of Javy Lopez. The Orioles and Los Angeles Angels started discussions on Wednesday about a trade that would send Lopez to the West Coast for center fielder/first baseman Darin Erstad, according to sources.

The talks were serious at one point yesterday, according to the source, but started to cool as the day wore on. On paper, the deal makes sense. Erstad, 31, and Lopez, 35, are both in their final year of deals and will make approximately $8.5 million this season. Erstad, who hit .273 with seven homers and 66 RBIs last season, has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block a trade to four teams, but the Orioles are not among them.

Struggling to upgrade their rotation after getting LaTroy Hawkins from San Francisco for Steve Kline in a swap of relievers Tuesday, the Orioles have decided that the next best thing is to improve their defense. Erstad, who is a two-time Gold Glove outfielder, is also considered a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman.

The Angels have two young catchers after not offering Bengie Molina salary arbitration, and are coveting another powerful bat in the middle of their lineup. Still, according to a source, it was the Angels, not the Orioles, that were more hesitant in the deal.

Orioles officials would prefer keeping Lopez, whose agent, Chuck Berry, did not return calls seeking comment yesterday, because they feel he will have a good offensive year, shifting as a designated hitter, catcher and first baseman. Lopez hit 43 home runs in 2003, the last time he was in the final year of his contract.

But Orioles officials realize Lopez is one of their few valuable trade chips. According to one source, the Orioles shopped center fielder Luis Matos at the winter meetings and got some interest. There were also inquiries about Jay Gibbons, but he is penciled in as the starting right fielder.

But as they expected, almost every team that entered the Orioles' suite at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel asked about the availability of Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Hayden Penn, the Orioles' top three young pitchers.

"You cannot give up young and affordable pitching," said Orioles vice president Jim Duquette. "It became clear the last two weeks that the cost of replacing a quality pitcher is so high that it would be very difficult to trade a pitcher. It would be a unique situation for us to trade those guys."

Meanwhile, Marlins free agent Jeff Conine moved closer to returning to Baltimore. The Orioles and Conine's agent, Michael Watkins, met late Wednesday and discussed "several options." Watkins would not confirm specifics, but one source familiar with the negotiations said the two are closing in on a one-year deal "in the neighborhood of $1.5 million."

Watkins said he expects the negotiations to intensify next week. He said two other clubs have expressed interest in Conine, who spent parts of five seasons with the Orioles before being traded to Florida in August 2003. Florida didn't offer him arbitration, practically guaranteeing that he would not return to Miami.

Conine, 39, hit .304 with three homers and 33 RBIs in 335 at-bats as a platoon outfielder and occasional first baseman.

"Ultimately, it is up to Jeff and [his wife] Cindy, but I will tell you Jeff loves Baltimore," Watkins said.

Not long after the Texas Rangers traded Alfonso Soriano to the Washington Nationals for outfielders Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and a minor leaguer early yesterday, Texas officials contacted the Orioles to discuss trades.

Texas reportedly is interested in moving an outfielder or two, including Wilkerson, Kevin Mench, David Dellucci and/or Laynce Nix for pitching help.

Wilkerson, whose offensive output dropped at spacious RFK Stadium in 2005, and Mench, a University of Delaware product, might cost more than the Orioles are willing to give up. And Dellucci, a former Oriole, is coming off a career year and has developed into a Rangers' team leader.

Reliever Jorge Julio and starter Rodrigo Lopez have been discussed this offseason as potential trade bait, and the Rangers are looking for an eighth-inning setup man and starting pitching.

Hernandez will be in Baltimore on Sunday, and take a physical the next day. That's the only thing holding up the four-year, $27.5 million deal that the 29-year-old essentially finalized with the Orioles on Wednesday. Hernandez, formerly of the Padres, could be introduced to the local media on Tuesday.

"We made some progress, but we still have a long way to go," said Duquette. "We are going to be very active the next few weeks."

Notes -- The Orioles are still talking to the agent for Braden Looper and could make a trade for a short-term fix, but it's becoming more and more probable that Chris Ray, 23, will become the club's closer at some point in 2006. ... The Orioles did not meet with agent Scott Boras in Dallas, but Duquette said it isn't a sign the club is not interested in his client, Kevin Millwood. ... The Orioles lost two left-handed pitchers from Double-A Bowie, Alberto Bastardo (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Carlos Jan (Chicago Cubs) in the Triple-A phase of yesterday's Rule 5 draft. The Orioles acquired right-handed starter Fernando Quijada from Philadelphia's Batavia club in the Double-A phase.



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