Orioles zeroing in on Burnitz

87-RBI outfielder eyes 2 years, $12M



Looking to add power and solid defense to an outfield that struggled in both areas last season, the Orioles are nearing an agreement with Chicago Cubs free agent Jeromy Burnitz.

The Orioles are close to signing the outfielder to a two-year deal worth about $6 million a season, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. An agreement could be finalized by the end of this week.

A left-handed hitter, Burnitz, who turns 37 in April and is one home run short of 300 for his career, batted .258 last season for the Cubs with 24 homers, 87 RBIs and a .322 on-base percentage.

Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan and Howard Simon, Burnitz's agent, acknowledged the sides are in talks, but neither would confirm that a deal is imminent.

"We're still talking to several teams, and the Orioles are certainly one of the teams we are still talking to," Simon said.

When the signing becomes official, Burnitz likely would become the Orioles' starting left fielder after the club decided last week not to tender a contract to Eric Byrnes. Burnitz, who is considered above average defensively with a strong throwing arm, has played right field for most of his career, but Jay Gibbons is penciled in as the Opening Day right fielder.

Burnitz also has played a combined 271 games in center or left field. The addition of Burnitz, along with the recent signing of right-handed Jeff Conine - he will officially become an Oriole once he takes a physical, which has been delayed by the holidays - gives manager Sam Perlozzo some flexibility in filling out his lineup card.

Perlozzo probably still isn't sure who will be his everyday center fielder, but it is expected that top prospect Nick Markakis will be given the opportunity in spring training to win the job. Luis Matos, last year's starter in center, remains an option, but he has been mentioned often in trade talks.

In Burnitz, the Orioles get a consistent power source who also strikes out frequently. Burnitz has 24 or more homers in eight of his past nine seasons, but he also has struck out 100 or more times each season since 1997. Burnitz has 1,375 career hits and 1,302 career strikeouts.

In other news, the Orioles remain in talks with a couple of teams about a trade involving disgruntled shortstop Miguel Tejada, but they appear to be no closer to trading the All-Star than they were several weeks ago after Tejada publicly called for a change of scenery.

All along, the Orioles have maintained that they'd need to be overwhelmed to deal Tejada, and no team has come close to accomplishing that, according to industry sources.

The Red Sox, according to one source, have made one of the most intriguing offers - outfielder Manny Ramirez and starting pitcher Matt Clement for Tejada - but several high-ranking Orioles officials remain opposed to trading the team's best player within the American League East.

The Cubs, who are offering a package anchored by ace right-hander Mark Prior, are believed to be the most aggressive suitor for Tejada at this point, but the two teams still haven't come close to reaching an agreement on any deal, according to sources. The Orioles are believed to prefer Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano over Prior, and they also are reluctant to part with left-hander Erik Bedard in the deal.

Note -- In his first public comments since last season, former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro told The New York Times that he hasn't decided if he wants to play next season. He also continued to infer that a liquid injection of vitamin B-12 he received from Tejada might have caused the positive steroids test that led to his 10-day suspension last season. "I wish I could pinpoint exactly what happened," Palmeiro told the newspaper in a telephone interview. "I would think it was the B-12. I'm not certain of that; I can't prove it." But he added: "I'm going to take the responsibility, me being careless and taking something I wasn't knowing if it was clean. ... It was careless, stupid, naive of me to think it was safe."


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