A's stock AL East with another star

Monday, December 15, 2003

NEW ORLEANS -- The Baltimore Orioles made a big splash Sunday, signing former AL MVP Miguel Tejada to a $72 million, six-year contract -- and then vowing they were just starting to warm up at the winter meetings.

After finding its first stellar successor to Cal Ripken at shortstop, the Orioles immediately turned their attention back to three other top targets: Vladimir Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez and Javy Lopez.

"This is the first part of what we're trying to accomplish this offseason, with getting bats in the middle of the lineup," Orioles vice president Jim Beattie said.

Up until Tejada's deal, it had been fairly quiet right off the French Quarter.

Tampa Bay was the busiest on a light day of trading. The Devil Rays got pitcher Mark Hendrickson in a three-team swap that sent reliever Justin Speier to Toronto, acquired infielder Geoff Blum from Houston and agreed with outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. and infielder Rey Sanchez.

Also, infielder Tony Graffanino signed with Kansas City.

Free agent Greg Maddux stayed on hold, with San Diego showing the most interest, while pitchers Arthur Rhodes, Sterling Hitchcock and Jeff Suppan attracted attention.

Atlanta and Oakland wanted Rhodes, albeit for different roles, a day after spots opened up in their bullpens. The Braves liked the left-handed reliever as a setup man after trading Ray King while the Athletics looked at Rhodes as a closer after losing Keith Foulke.

Hitchcock, who split last season between the New York Yankees and St. Louis, hoped to wind up back in San Diego, where he was MVP of the 1998 NL championship series. Suppan, a 13-game winner with Pittsburgh and Boston, drew interest from the Cardinals and Texas.

Stuck in next-to-last place in the AL East for six straight seasons, the Orioles came to town determined to find hitters. Baltimore executives stayed up until 2:30 a.m. Sunday talking about Tejada and others.

"How many chances do you get to add an MVP-caliber player to your club who wants to be there for a long time?" new Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said.

The Orioles outbid Detroit and Seattle in giving Tejada the richest deal of this offseason, according to contract information obtained by The Associated Press. And, Baltimore still has more money to spend.

"Miguel continues the tradition of great Orioles shortstops. The cornerstone of the Orioles through the years has been our shortstops, and he certainly fits in that mold," vice president Mike Flanagan said.

Ripken, Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio and slick Mark Belanger combined to play the position in Baltimore from 1963-1997. Now, the Orioles hope Tejada can become a fixture at Camden Yards.

Tejada, 27, hit .308 with 34 home runs and 131 RBIs in 2002 to help Oakland win 103 games and the AL West. After that season, he was voted MVP.

Tejada slumped to .278 with 27 homers and 106 RBIs last season. Not that the Orioles are worried -- besides, they needed to improve in a division where every other club had made offseason moves.

"You can't play dumb to the surroundings of what's going on around you. But we have to think about our team," Mazzilli said.

Guerrero is said to be looking for a seven-year deal for around $105 million, about $40 million more than the Orioles supposedly proposed in a five-year contract to the All-Star outfielder.

Beattie had wanted to avoid giving six-year deals, but went that far for Tejada. He could do the same for Guerrero -- the two formed a solid relationship when Beattie was Montreal's general manager.

The rival New York Yankees kept working, too, to finish deals for free-agent outfielders Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton. Those contracts are expected to be announced within a few days.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman's option for 2005 will be exercised by George Steinbrenner, the owner's spokesman said.

In an outburst during the AL playoffs, Steinbrenner said he was going to nullify the option and told Cashman he could seek the Mets' GM job, which was open at the time.

Tampa Bay, last in the AL East in every season since beginning play in 1998, tinkered with its roster in a three-team trade that included Toronto and Colorado. Pitcher Joe Kennedy ended up with the Rockies.

Hendrickson, 29, was 9-9 with a 5.51 ERA for Toronto. He led AL rookies with 30 starts.

Speier, 30, was 3-1 with nine saves and a 4.05 ERA in 72 relief appearances for Colorado. Kennedy, the Devil Rays' opening-day starter, went 3-12 with a 6.32 ERA.

Tampa Bay also got Blum, who hit .262 with 10 home runs and 52 RBIs for Houston, for pitcher Brandon Backe.

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