Orioles turn a double play: Team reaches agreements with Mike Gonzalez, Garrett Atkins

Club lands left-handed reliever, third baseman, filling 2 big vacancies with free agents

December 17, 2009|By Jeff Zrebiec and Dan Connolly | Baltimore Sun reporters

Filling two of their biggest offseason needs, the Orioles on Wednesday agreed to a two-year deal with free-agent left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez and a one-year pact with third baseman Garrett Atkins, according to industry sources.

Both deals are pending physicals, which could take place in Baltimore within the next couple of days. Gonzalez, who is represented by Scott Boras, will earn $12 million over two years with escalator and incentive clauses allowing him to make an additional $4 million.

Atkins' contract is one year for $4 million with an opportunity to make as much as $5 million in 2010. The deal includes a one-year club option for $8.5 million, with a $500,000 buyout. Atkins could earn $250,000 more in 2010 if he has 550 plate appearances and an additional $250,000 for 600 plate appearances.

Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail didn't return a call Wednesday night seeking comment. He traditionally declines to discuss free-agent deals until the player passes a physical. The addition of Gonzalez and Atkins, coupled with last week's acquisition of veteran starter Kevin Millwood in a trade with the Texas Rangers, leaves filling the void at first base as the primary objective of the Orioles' front office the rest of the offseason.

The signing of Gonzalez, who is a Type A free agent and declined the Atlanta Braves' arbitration offer earlier this month, will cost the Orioles their second-round pick (currently 43rd overall) in the 2010 first-year player draft. Team officials had said all along that they wouldn't hesitate to surrender a draft pick if they could sign a player who would significantly upgrade their current roster.

Considered one of the top relievers on the free-agent market, Gonzalez, 31, went 5-4 with a 2.42 ERA, 17 holds and 10 saves in 80 appearances for the Braves last year, while primarily serving as a left-handed setup complement to Rafael Soriano. He struck out 90 batters in 74 1/3 innings, and opponents hit just .209 against him.

It's unclear whether the Orioles view Gonzalez as their full-time closer or whether he'll be part of a closer-by-committee approach that includes right-handed relievers Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara. Either way, Gonzalez will strengthen a bullpen that fell apart last year after All-Star closer George Sherrill was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in late July.

Atkins, 30, was nontendered by the Colorado Rockies on Saturday and immediately became a fairly hot target, drawing interest from 10 or more teams, according to his agent, Jeff Blanks.

He intrigues the Orioles because he can play both first and third base, and the club has openings at each spot - at least until minor league prospects Brandon Snyder and Josh Bell are deemed ready.

But what most interests the Orioles about Atkins is his right-handed power bat, something the club sorely lacked in 2009. Atkins had a down year last season, hitting nine home runs with 48 RBIs and a .226 average while playing half his games at hitter-friendly Coors Field. He temporarily lost his starting job and registered just 354 at-bats, the first time since 2004 he didn't have at least 500 at-bats.

From 2006 to 2008, however, Atkins was one of the National League's better young sluggers, totaling more than 20 homers and 99 or more RBIs each season. His best year was 2006, when he batted .329 with 29 homers and 120 RBIs.

Primarily a first baseman at UCLA before he was drafted in the fifth round by the Rockies in 2000, Atkins has played 642 games at third and 105 at first in his seven-season big league career.

Gonzalez has filled a variety of relief roles during his career, from closer to setup man to left-handed specialist. His best season came with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006, when Gonzalez converted all 24 of his save opportunities and had a 2.17 ERA in 54 appearances.

Gonzalez has a sub-3.00 ERA in five of the past six seasons and a 2.57 ERA over his career, which spans part of seven big league campaigns.

Armed with a herky-jerky delivery, Gonzalez has been especially tough on left-handed hitters, holding them to a .201 average over the course of his career.

The Orioles' need to augment the back end of the bullpen became abundantly clear after Sherrill was traded to the Dodgers last July for third base prospect Bell and pitching prospect Steve Johnson, who was lost to the San Francisco Giants in last week's Rule 5 draft.

Taken out of his normal eighth-inning role, Jim Johnson struggled in his audition for the long-term closer spot, blowing three of his 11 save opportunities after the trade of Sherrill. The Orioles also couldn't find anybody to replace him in the setup role, and the result was a lot of blown leads in the seventh and eighth innings.

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