Talks with LaRoche stalled, O's show renewed interest in Lee

December 21, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

With contract talks at an impasse, the Orioles have moved away from Adam LaRoche and renewed discussions with fellow free agent first baseman Derrek Lee, according to multiple industry sources.

The development comes less than a week after the Orioles appeared to settle on LaRoche, the 31-year-old who hit .261 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season, to fill their first-base vacancy. According to sources, the Orioles were negotiating almost exclusively with LaRoche's agent, Mike Milchin, last week, but the two sides have been unable to reach an agreement.

It isn't clear whether the holdup is LaRoche's reported insistence on a three-year deal while the Orioles would prefer not making that long of a commitment, or the player simply having better, more lucrative offers and not wanting to play in Baltimore.

Either way, the renewed talks this week with Lee's agent, Casey Close, appear to indicate that the Orioles aren't as confident as they once were in signing LaRoche. However, that could change quickly, as there remains mutual interest, according to sources.

Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail wouldn't comment on specific options, though he remains confident that the club can upgrade at the position.

"We're working towards it, exploring our options," said MacPhail. "We'll have something in place before the season starts."

The Orioles originally had hoped to agree to terms with a first baseman and have him take a physical to finalize the deal before team executives break for the Christmas holiday, but MacPhail said, "I think the ship has sailed on any physicals prior to the holidays."

Lee, a 35-year-old veteran of 14 big league seasons, batted .260 with 19 homers and 80 RBIs in 148 combined games for the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves in 2010. However, he played all season with a torn ligament in his right thumb, an injury that he sustained on Opening Day and is believed to have contributed to his decline in power numbers.

The season before, Lee, who had surgery on the thumb early last month and is expected to be ready for spring training, batted .306 with 35 homers and 111 RBIs in 141 games for the Cubs in 2009, and finished in the top 10 in National League Most Valuable Player voting.

The two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner is seeking a one-year deal, giving him an opportunity to have a productive season and prove he is healthy before looking for a multi-year commitment next offseason. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Lee was lukewarm with the idea of signing with the Orioles earlier this offseason, but the number of teams with first base vacancies has dwindled.

The San Diego Padres, Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals are among the teams still looking for a first baseman, though it is believed that both LaRoche and Lee are out of the Padres' and Diamondbacks' price range.

If the Orioles cannot sign either LaRoche or Lee, they could shift their focus to adding a designated hitter, such as Vladimir Guerrero or Jim Thome, and then moving Luke Scott or Nolan Reimold to first base. That, however, wouldn't be their first choice, as manager Buck Showalter is a strong proponent in having good defense at first base. Both LaRoche and Lee are considered above-average defensive players.

While the quest to find a first baseman remains at the top of MacPhail's priority list, he is still looking to augment the team's starting pitching depth with a veteran innings eater, and add another arm or two to the bullpen. The Orioles remain in negotiations with free agent reliever Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010.

Asked where things stand in other areas, MacPhail said, "We're still having ongoing discussions. It seems like the market has slowed down a little bit when historically, things pick up at this time. There just hasn't been a great deal of activity on any front, at least to the degree I recall in the past. But each market is different. They just move at their own pace. As much as you'd like to expedite things, you only influence half the equation."

NOTES: Outfielder Corey Patterson, who hit .269 with eight homers and 32 RBIs in 90 games for the Orioles in 2010, signed a minor league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. He also garnered an invitation to big league spring training, where he'll get an opportunity to win a reserve outfield job. … Infielder Cesar Izturis, who agreed with the Orioles on a one-year, $1.5 million deal on Dec.10, will likely take his physical and finalize his deal after the holidays.

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