Ex-Tiger Walker to join O's bullpen

Lefty near 3-year deal, two team sources say

Baseball

November 16, 2006|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun reporter

NAPLES, Fla. -- The Orioles' front office entered the general managers meetings vowing to be aggressive to fill their needs. That strategy secured one addition to a beleaguered bullpen yesterday and has the Orioles in the running for several others.

Last night, the Orioles agreed in principle to a three-year deal with Detroit Tigers left-handed reliever Jamie Walker, according to two club sources. Though terms of the deal were not disclosed, the Orioles will pay Walker, possibly the best left-handed reliever on the free-agent market, approximately $11.5 million over three seasons.

Club officials declined to comment because the deal isn't official until Walker, 35, who had a 2.81 ERA in 56 games last season, passes a physical. But both executive vice president Mike Flanagan and vice president Jim Duquette acknowledged that the Orioles had significant dialogue with Phil Tannenbaum, Walker's agent, and were hopeful of finalizing a deal. Tannenbaum did not return calls seeking comment.

"We're in the running," Flanagan said.

After having the second-worst bullpen ERA (5.25) in the major leagues last season, the Orioles made overhauling their bullpen their first offseason priority. Even with Walker on board, they are still looking to add at least two other relievers to help bridge the gap to closer Chris Ray.

The Orioles also have made offers to San Francisco Giants left-hander Mike Stanton, Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Justin Speier and Atlanta Braves right-hander Danys Baez, according to sources. Speier, one of the most coveted players on the free-agent market, received a three-year offer in the neighborhood of $12 million, though it could take more to land B.J. Ryan's setup man.

Baez, 29, has 111 career saves and is said to be looking for an opportunity to close, though he won't get that in Baltimore with Ray coming off a solid year. The Orioles, according to a team source, haven't decided if they will continue to pursue Stanton after Walker's signing is finalized. The Orioles also have expressed interest in but haven't made offers to right-handers Octavio Dotel and Roberto Hernandez.

"The bullpen was a major concern of ours and we want to address it," Duquette said.

The price the Orioles had to pay for Walker, who made 56 appearances and logged 48 innings last year as the prime left-handed specialist for the American League champion Tigers, shows how expensive reliable bullpen arms are in the current marketplace, which features a thin relief class. The Orioles, according to a team source, increased their original offer yesterday afternoon to close the deal.

Walker has been with Detroit since 2002, with last season being his best statistically. He allowed just 15 earned runs and held left-handed hitters to a .238 batting average. Over his career, Walker is 15-16 with five saves and a 3.95 ERA. In seven big league seasons, lefties are hitting .229 against him while right-handed hitters are batting .282.

Meanwhile, yesterday marked another busy day at the meetings for Orioles top executives, who will return to Baltimore this evening. For the third straight day, club officials met with the agents for Texas Rangers free-agent outfielder Carlos Lee, one of the top offensive players on the market.

Club officials maintain that there has been no contract offer made as they have gotten assurances that Lee, who has hit 30 or more homers four straight seasons, won't make a decision anytime soon. However, the amount of time Orioles officials are spending with Lee's representation suggests that the club is serious about its intention to be heavily involved in the bidding for the 30-year-old.

It has been speculated that Lee likely will sign with the Houston Astros because he owns a ranch outside Houston. However, Paul Kinzer, one of his agents, said Tuesday that Lee is "wide-open" to signing anywhere.

Asked about his club's interest in both Lee and Washington Nationals All-Star Alfonso Soriano, Flanagan said that the Orioles are hoping to be "in the mix" for the sluggers. Soriano's representation has not been on site at the meetings, though the Orioles have expressed their interest in the outfielder over the phone.

The Orioles also had significant dialogue the past couple of days with the agent of Oakland Athletics designated hitter Frank Thomas. However, Thomas, 38, according to industry sources, was looking for a two- or three-year deal worth $10 million annually, which was more than the Orioles were willing to offer.

ESPN was reporting last night that Thomas, who hit 39 homers this past season, was on the verge of signing with the Blue Jays. jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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