After having no shortstops on the 40-man roster as the offseason began and starting six players there in 2008, the Orioles headed into the winter with one of their most important missions clear: to fill the gaping hole in the middle of their infield.
Yesterday, the Orioles officially accomplished that goal by announcing the signing of Cesar Izturis, an eight-year veteran and former Gold Glove Award winner who spent last season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Izturis, 28, signed a two-year deal for $5 million, which could increase to a total of $6.2 million based on incentives and awards.
He's a career .260 hitter with a .299 on-base percentage and has just 12 homers in 3,165 major league at-bats. But he's considered one of baseball's best defenders.
"They need a defensive shortstop. So I bring to the table whatever I can," Izturis said during a teleconference with Baltimore media yesterday. "You just want to help the team win anyhow. So with my ability, I'll play every day. It's going to be fun."
Izturis, who won a Gold Glove with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004 and made the National League All-Star team in 2005, was limited by elbow and hamstring injuries for several seasons before signing with the Cardinals last year.
His 130 games at shortstop in 2008 were his most since 2004.
"Everything is good," Izturis said. "Actually, I stopped playing winter ball a week ago. I was playing there. So I feel good, my body feels good. Hopefully, it will the rest of the season."
If he stays healthy, the Orioles expect to have their steadiest defensive shortstop since Mike Bordick, who left in 2002.
Last year, the Orioles' shortstop six-pack made 28 errors in 161 games. In his past 349 games at shortstop, dating four seasons, Izturis has made just 32 errors.
"He is an All-Star; he is a Gold Glove-type player," Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora said. "He's as good [defensively] as Omar Vizquel. He's that kind of player."
Mora, who has known Izturis, a fellow Venezuelan, for years, said the switch-hitter doesn't hurt a team with his bat, either.
"He is a smart guy. He knows hitting, so you can use him to hit and run." Mora said. "He runs pretty good and can steal [bases]. Plus, he is a good person, a nice man."
Orioles manager Dave Trembley said he did his "homework" on Izturis, including talking at length to Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
"This guy's makeup is off the charts," Trembley said. "He's a real professional player and person. Obviously, this fills one of our primary needs, a bona fide, big league, everyday shortstop. And we got a good one."
Izturis said he was pursued by several clubs but liked the idea of being the Orioles' starter through 2010.
"This is a good opportunity [for] me to be here and play every day," he said. "It's a challenge to me to help the team win anyhow. It's lot of good people, a lot of young guys."
Izturis is the Orioles' first free-agent signing this offseason. Mora, for one, hopes he's not the last.
"Our problems are we could not find a shortstop and we could not find pitching, that's the Orioles' problem," Mora said. "Now, we find a shortstop. Now, we need to get some pitching."
Notes: : Orioles president Andy MacPhail said he has had discussions with agent Scott Boras, who represents free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira. He would not offer specifics. ... The Orioles have talked with Tom O'Connell, the agent for starter Tim Redding, who was nontendered by the Washington Nationals last week. Several teams appear interested in Redding, a 30-year-old right-hander who was 10-11 with a 4.95 ERA in 2008. O'Connell also represents free agent Carl Pavano, whom the Orioles are not actively courting. ... The Orioles also continue to pursue free-agent pitcher Braden Looper and Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami. ... As expected, the Indian River County (Fla.) Board of Commissioners voted yesterday morning to rescind an offer to the Orioles to relocate the club's spring training facility to Vero Beach's Dodgertown in 2010. The board won't meet with the Orioles for at least 30 days while it pursues other options. ... Sarasota (Fla.) County officials are expected to vote today on a tourism tax that would pave the way for a new stadium complex in Sarasota that could entice the Orioles from their spring home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.