LAS VEGAS - The Orioles accomplished one of their primary goals at the winter meetings yesterday, trading catcher Ramon Hernandez, and moved closer to fulfilling another by nearing a final agreement with free-agent shortstop Cesar Izturis.
On a busy Day 2 of the winter meetings at the Bellagio Hotel, the club sent Hernandez and approximately $2 million to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Ryan Freel and two prospects, and agreed in principle on a two-year contract worth about $6 million with Izturis, according to multiple industry sources.
The deal with Izturis, a slick-fielding shortstop who played last season for the St. Louis Cardinals, will be contingent on the 28-year-old passing a physical, so it likely won't be announced for a couple of days. Izturis hit .263 last year with one homer, 24 RBIs and 24 steals.
Orioles president Andy MacPhail arrived at the winter meetings looking to find a taker for Hernandez, acquire a starting shortstop and add starting pitching. With about a day and a half left in the meetings, the rotation is the only area that hasn't been addressed, though MacPhail has had plenty of talks about adding a starter through trades or free agency.
"There are things that we felt we needed to do," MacPhail said. "One of them we've done, the second one we're satisfied with our progress to date. The third one, we knew it was going to be the longest and filled with the most variables."
For Hernandez, whose defense and effort has been questioned the past two seasons, the Orioles got Freel, 32, who plays all three outfield position and second and third base; and minor league infielders Justin Turner and Brandon Waring.
Turner, a 24-year-old second baseman, hit .289 with eight homers and 42 RBIs in 78 games for Double-A Chattanooga, while Waring, a 22-year-old third baseman, batted .270 with 20 homers and 71 RBIs for Single-A Dayton.
Perhaps more importantly, the Orioles also were able to dump a portion of Hernandez's contract - he is due to make $8 million next season, while Freel is owed $4 million - and create an opening behind the plate for top prospect Matt Wieters.
"This trade was more about Matt Wieters, frankly," MacPhail said. "It had been our goal to make sure we could introduce Matt into the major league scene somewhere over the course of the '09 season, not necessarily to start right away, but we thought he could handle it eventually after a little time in Triple-A possibly under his belt. We knew that would create a situation where we were going to have to split some playing time with him and Ramon, and we knew Ramon wouldn't be happy about that."
The trade of Hernandez, who didn't return several phone calls from The Baltimore Sun, leaves the Orioles without an offensive presence in their lineup (he hit .257 last season with 15 homers and 65 RBIs) and a single catcher on their 40-man roster. MacPhail acknowledged that the club is trying to acquire a veteran catcher either through free agency or trade to help bridge the gap for Wieters, 22, who has played in only 61 games above Single-A.
MacPhail said Wieters is "unlikely" to be the Orioles' Opening Day catcher, but he expects him to join the big league club at some point during the season.
Meanwhile, Freel, a right-handed hitter, will mostly be a utility player, platooning with the left-handed-hitting Luke Scott in left field and also occasionally playing center and right field and spelling Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora at second and third base.
"Freel, for me, is a guy that is basically two players in one because he can do more than one thing," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "He's going to play. He'll get his at-bats."
Freel, a high-energy player and once the Reds' starting center fielder, has been limited to 123 games over the past two seasons because of injuries. He batted .298 in 48 games last season but didn't play after June 3 and eventually needed surgery on a torn right hamstring. He has a career average of .272 and has stolen 36 or more bases in three seasons.
"I've always been the smallest kid on the block, and I kind of scratched and clawed to get to where I'm at," said Freel, who is listed at 5 feet 10, 185 pounds. "I just had to do the little things, and, fortunately, I've had success with that. It's just a passion that I have within me that gives me that spark and gives me that energy. It's like a switch. I just can't turn it off."
Notes:: According to an industry source, free-agent right-hander Jon Garland, who pitched for the Los Angeles Angels last season, is seeking a multiyear deal worth about $13 million per season, well more than the Orioles are willing to pay. Garland's agent, Craig Landis, said the Orioles have expressed interest in his client, but he didn't have any meetings planned with MacPhail this week. ... The Orioles yesterday met with the agents of Japanese pitchers Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara, but no offers were extended. Mark Pieper, Uehara's agent, also represents Roberts, but MacPhail said the discussions were focused on the pitcher, not the second baseman. They'll likely meet later this week to discuss Roberts.
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