- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The Baltimore Orioles' pursuit for prime free agent targets this offseason began in earnest last night. Club officials faxed contract offers to the agents of All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez and Japanese star outfielder Hideki Matsui.

The Orioles will continue talks with Rodriguez today. The length of the proposal was not made available, but the Orioles are comfortable offering a three-year deal plus options and incentives, executive VP for baseball operations Jim Beattie said. There is some concern with offering Rodriguez a long-term deal because he has missed extended stretches of the last three seasons with injuries.

Arn Tellem, Matsui's agent, contacted the Orioles yesterday and gave them a short time to get back to him, according to Beattie. The Orioles faxed an offer to Tellem, which he was to relay to Matsui last night.

The New York Yankees reportedly are the favorites to land the Japanese slugger, but Beattie said the Orioles responded yesterday with a "very competitive offer." The left-handed hitting Matsui, 28, hit .334 with a Japanese Central League-best 50 home runs and 107 RBI for the Yomiuri Giants last season, when he won his third MVP award.

Yesterday's offer to Rodriguez came on the heels of the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., where the Orioles developed their interest in the 10-time All-Star. Reports out of Nashville indicated few teams were seriously interested in Rodriguez because of his recent injuries, asking price and a slow-developing free agent market.

Rodriguez made about $9million last season. Rodriguez's agent, Jeff Moorad, was expected to seek in the $10million range in annual salary for his client, but the lack of big-name free agent signings so far this offseason means he likely won't reach that figure.

"I don't know when we could get [a deal done]," Beattie said. "It could depend more on them than us."

Beattie said the Orioles will not enter a bidding war for Rodriguez and will move on if negotiations with Moorad push the asking price past their comfort level.

The Orioles had intended to make their initial offer to Rodriguez on the last day of the meetings but were unable to meet with Moorad.

When he's healthy, Rodriguez, 31, is the best all-around catcher in the game. He was named the AL MVP in 1999, hitting .332 with 35 home runs, 113 RBI and 25 stolen bases. But he has missed at least 50 games in each of the last three seasons because of injuries.

Rodriguez missed seven weeks with a herniated disk in his lower back early last season, though he did return to play the final four months healthy. For the season, he hit .314 with 19 homers and 60 RBI, the eighth straight season in which he has hit .300 or better. Rodriguez won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1992 to 2001, tying Johnny Bench for the most won in a row by a catcher.

He had surgery in September 2001 to repair a knee injury and broke a bone in his thumb in July 2000 and missed the final two months of the season. Baltimore could opt to play Rodriguez as a designated hitter to lessen the wear and tear he sustains as a catcher. Beattie said it would be ideal for Rodriguez to play about 110 games at catcher and the rest at DH to put him over 600 at-bats.

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