Orioles corner Huff's bat

Sources: Free agent agrees to 3-year, $20M deal

he can play first, third, left, right

December 31, 2006|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun reporter

The Orioles tried unsuccessfully to lure free-agent slugger Carlos Lee to Baltimore and also were unable to complete a deal for Atlanta Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Their offseason search for an impact hitter produced little but frustration for the past month and a half, but that changed early yesterday morning. At about 2 a.m. yesterday, the Orioles agreed in principle on a three-year, $20 million deal with free agent Aubrey Huff, several industry sources confirmed.

Huff, a 30-year-old who can play first and third base and both corner outfield spots though is primarily valued for his bat, is expected to take a physical in Baltimore this week, possibly Wednesday. The deal will be finalized and announced if he passes his physical.

"All that is left is a physical and dotting the I's and crossing the T's," said one source familiar with the negotiations.

The Orioles do not comment on deals until they are official. The club has long coveted Huff, who hit .267 this past season with 21 home runs and 66 RBIs while playing both for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Houston Astros, who acquired the left-handed hitter in a July trade.

After also talking to first baseman-outfielder Craig Wilson, the Orioles picked up their negotiation and recruiting efforts of Huff late last week, convinced that the player, whose asking price had dropped significantly, was their best option for an impact bat in the middle of their order to serve as protection for Miguel Tejada. They initially made a three-year, $18 million offer Friday, but the two sides worked late into the night and found a compromise, according to sources.

Huff, who is three years removed from his best season (he hit .311 with 34 homers and 107 RBIs in 2003) is one of only 10 current major leaguers to post five consecutive seasons with at least 20 home runs and 25 doubles. He has 90 or more RBIs in three of the past four seasons and 20 or more home runs in five consecutive years.

"I am excited if we can sign him," Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora said last night. "I think [Huff] can put up the same numbers as a $70 million player. He can hit over 20 home runs, plus he can drive in 100. This is the perfect guy to hit behind Miggy."

According to a source close to Huff, the player was intrigued by becoming an Oriole, partly because of his success at Camden Yards. He is a .285 career hitter at Oriole Park with eight home runs and 29 RBIs in 48 games. He also has more home runs (20) and RBIs (63) against the Orioles than any other team.

But the source said Huff was further swayed after he had lunch with Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo on Thursday in Florida. Perlozzo, who didn't return a phone call seeking a comment, made a sales pitch to Huff and discussed how he would fit into the Orioles' lineup, most likely hitting fifth behind Nick Markakis and Tejada. Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora would occupy the first two spots in the Orioles' order.

Orioles vice president Jim Duquette and first baseman Kevin Millar also made recruiting calls to Huff, who attracted interest from the Los Angeles Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers among other teams.

"He brings a true baseball player's personality and the guy can hit," Millar said. "He has driven in 100-plus in the big leagues. I've always thought that he was underrated. If we sign him, it would be huge for the ballclub."

Millar said it wouldn't bother him that Huff could possibly take away some of his at-bats. The Orioles envision Huff playing first base, left field, occasionally spelling Mora at third base and also getting some at-bats at designated hitter.

Huff has started only seven career games in left field, but that's where he figures to get a decent chunk of his at-bats with the Orioles. Jay Payton, whom the club signed to a two-year deal earlier this offseason, had been penciled in as the Orioles' Opening Day left fielder, and he still figures to receive plenty of starts there.

But Huff's addition could push Payton to the fourth outfielder role at times. Or if the club is facing a lefty, Payton could move to center field and the current starter there, Corey Patterson, would go to the bench. Huff's career average against lefties (.276) is only 12 points lower than it is against righties, meaning he's unlikely to be used in a platoon situation.

Huff would become the Orioles' ninth free agent signing this year, including Millar and Chris Gomez, who played with the team last year. The Orioles also acquired starting pitcher Jaret Wright and utility man Freddie Bynum in trades this offseason. The Orioles could still make a trade - Rodrigo Lopez is the most likely candidate to be moved - but they are likely done making any high-profile free-agent signings.

Note -- The Orioles have made significant progress toward reaching a deal with free-agent reliever Todd Williams, whom the club non-tendered earlier this month. Perlozzo met with Williams last week in Tampa to gauge his interest in returning to the club.jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.

Huff's stats

Year Team G AB H 2B HR RBI Avg.

2000 T.B. 39 122 35 7 4 14 .287

2001 T.B. 111 411 102 25 8 45 .248

2002 T.B. 113 454 142 25 23 59 .313

2003 T.B. 162 636 198 47 34 107 .311

2004 T.B. 157 600 178 27 29 104 .297

2005 T.B. 154 575 150 26 22 92 .261

2006 T.B. 63 230 65 15 8 28 .283

Hou. 68 224 56 10 13 38 .250

Totals 867 3252 926 182 141 487 .285

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