"They stepped up," Garrett Atkins said of the Orioles.… (Handout photo )
Garrett Atkins has hit at least 21 homers in three of his five full big-league seasons. He averaged 110 RBIs from 2006 to 2009, and he's a career .289 hitter. Yet, as the third baseman joins a new organization for the first time in his professional career, he finds himself in a position that he hasn't been in since his rookie year.
"No doubt, I have a lot to prove," Atkins said Tuesday after passing his physical and finalizing a one-year, $4.5 million free agent deal with the Orioles. "That's why I am excited about this opportunity. I get a chance to get back to playing every day with a really good lineup. There's not going to be a better opportunity for me to show that I'm back on track."
Atkins, 30, hit .226 with nine homers and 48 RBI in 126 games for the Colorado Rockies last season. The disappointing numbers and his rising salary were the main reasons that the Rockies nontendered him earlier this month.
Atkins said the Orioles, who had vacancies at both first and third base, were the first team to call his agent, and a deal was struck within a week. His contract includes $500,000 in incentives and an $8.5 million option for 2011 with a $500,000 buyout.
"They stepped up," Atkins said. "They were the first one to call, showed the most interest, were able to provide the most playing time. It's a good lineup. They obviously had the most confidence in me out of any team out there. All of those things are very appealing for a player."
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said that several factors contributed to Atkins' rising on the team's wish list. Even during his trying 2009 season, he hit a respectable .268 against left-handed pitching, an area where the Orioles have struggled for several seasons.
Oriole officials watched extensive tape of Atkins and feel that his problems at the plate are fixable. He was willing to accept a short-term deal, meaning that he wouldn't be a long-term block for the organization's two top corner infield prospects, third baseman Josh Bell and first baseman Brandon Snyder.
And perhaps most importantly, Atkins can play both first and third base, offering Orioles manager Dave Trembley more flexibility. MacPhail is still looking to add another corner infielder and Atkins' presence on the roster allows him to consider first and third basemen.
MacPhail said Atkins' position will become "self-evident" before spring training begins, depending on what other moves the Orioles make. While he has played primarily third base during his pro career, Atkins said he'd be fine playing either corner spot, as long as he was given an opportunity to get comfortable at one of them.
"Here we had the opportunity to take a little bit of a risk and a flyer on a guy who was one of the most productive National League hitters going into last season," MacPhail said. "We're very confident that he's going to be able to get back to where he's been in the past. I have a lot of confidence in [hitting coach] Terry Crowley. Terry has always been a believer that, if it's in there, he can get it out. We're excited about the possibility of adding a big right-handed bat."
Atkins' best season came in 2006, when he hit .329 with 29 homers and 120 RBIs. He had another good year in 2007, hitting .301 with 25 homers and 111 RBIs. However, his numbers have declined in the past three seasons, culminating this past season, when Atkins lost his starting job at one point.
"I just got off to a rough start and the coaches started tinkering a little bit," he said. "I couldn't really get a handle on it. Then when I started to feel decent, I lost my starting spot. It was just a tough situation."
The Orioles did plenty of research on Atkins, including a study on how the Rockies' hitters-friendly ballpark, Coors Field, affects different players. Atkins is a career .327 hitter with 48 homers, 264 RBI, a .385 on-base percentage and a .507 slugging percent in 1,356 at-bats at Coors Field. On the road, Atkins has a .252 career average with 50 homers, 215 RBI, a .324 on-base percentage and a .411 slugging percentage in 1,432 at-bats.
"The fact that we were aggressive as we were in terms of the timing and trying to get it done reflects our level of confidence" in Atkins, MacPhail said.
Atkins is the Orioles' third significant addition this offseason, joining veteran starting pitcher Kevin Millwood, who was acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers, and likely closer Mike Gonzalez, who signed a two-year deal with the club last week. MacPhail said that while he doesn't anticipate any more activity before the new year, he does foresee more opportunities to improve the club before spring training begins.
"It's really given us an improved club, but more important, it's given us some flexibility," Trembley said. "It's going to allow us to put some guys into some positions where I think that they'll not only be more productive, they'll be more experienced."