Before the Orioles had a chance to write Carlos Lee's name into their lineup, they first had to draw a line.
What were they willing to spend on the free-agent outfielder? How much was too much?
Apparently, six years and $100 million was further than they wanted to go.
That's what it cost the Houston Astros to sign Lee yesterday to the richest contract in franchise history. And that's why the Orioles are still searching for another bat.
"We were seriously in it," said Jim Duquette, the club's vice president of baseball operations. "But at some point, you have to draw a line on what you'll spend on one player. Our feeling was that was an awful lot of money, an awfully high risk.
"We were in it very deep, but not that deep."
Lee, his wife and his agent, Adam Katz, met with Duquette and executive vice president Mike Flanagan during the general managers meetings in Naples, Fla. The two-time All-Star became their primary offensive target once they determined that Alfonso Soriano, who eventually signed an eight-year, $136 million contract with the Chicago Cubs, would be too expensive.
"We felt great about it. We had a terrific meeting," Duquette said. "In that type of situation, it's a get-to-know you thing, where you're headed, the philosophy of the organization. We got along real well."
Lee, 30, hit a combined .300 with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs for the Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers last season. His new contract includes a no-trade clause for the first four years and a limited clause for the last two.
The Astros, the worst-hitting team in the National League this season, reportedly will pay Lee $11 million in 2007, along with a $3 million signing bonus, $12 million in 2008 and $18.5 million in each of the last four years.
"I'm very excited to be here," Lee said during an afternoon news conference in Houston. "I know this is a team where I have a good chance to win a championship. I've always liked this team, they're always very good and I like this ballpark. I like a lot about Houston. That's why I told my agent this was one of the places I'd like to play."
The Orioles never made a firm offer to Lee, but they discussed "parameters and concepts" of a deal, according to Duquette.
"That's what he was doing with all the teams," Duquette said. "In theory, Houston was the only team that actually made a concrete offer. That's more a matter of semantics, really."
The Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants also had been in contention to sign Lee, who owns a cattle ranch near Houston. The Phillies recently dropped out of the running.
"The reality is, Houston was his first choice all along, as we found out at the end," said Duquette, who also noted that Lee won't have to pay state income tax in Texas.
"The other two teams were going to have to spend more to get the player. It was going to have to be north of $100 million for us or the Giants to get him. The whole market is crazy numbers, but that one seemed kind of crazy to us."
A few players phoned Lee in an attempt to sway him toward Baltimore. Duquette said he doesn't believe the Orioles were used by Katz to drive up Lee's price.
"I never got that sense," he said. "I think they were definitely sincere. He was seriously considering here."
With a vacancy remaining in left field, the Orioles could turn to Cliff Floyd or Jay Payton. They also could reopen talks with the Brewers, who have offered Kevin Mench for pitcher Rodrigo Lopez. Though they also need a first baseman, it probably won't be Severna Park native Mark Teixeira, since the Rangers made it known during the GM meetings that he's not available.
"We've got a couple other ideas. We've been going down parallel roads in case this happened," Duquette said. "Unfortunately, [Lee] and Soriano were the two high-profile guys."
The bullpen remains a work in progress, and the Orioles have offers on the table for Joe Borowski, Danys Baez and Chad Bradford.
Note -- The Astros also signed pitcher Woody Williams, who grew up in Houston, to a two-year deal worth $12.5 million, with a club option for a third year worth an additional $6.5 million.