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Marlins one of four teams vying for Armando Benitez


By Mike Berardino

Staff Writer

Posted December 12 2003


A heavy week of free-agent signings by prominent relievers has pushed the Marlins into overdrive in their search for late-inning help.


According to an industry source, the Marlins were gearing up to "make a strong run" for a closer as they head to New Orleans today for the start of baseball's winter meetings.


Their primary target is hard-throwing Armando Benitez, who split a difficult 2003 season among three different teams.


The Marlins nearly acquired the All-Star right-hander in July before dealing for Ugueth Urbina instead when the Texas Rangers agreed to cover the bulk of his salary.


Mike Powers, the pitcher's Baltimore-based agent, confirmed the Marlins are one of four teams in "active discussions" regarding Benitez. Powers would not name the teams Thursday evening but said they are split equally between the National and American leagues.


Powers will not be in New Orleans this weekend but said he would not be surprised to field his first offers in the coming days.


"We certainly expect that to happen and to happen soon," Powers said.


Free-agent closer Keith Foulke could dictate some of that timing as he weighs rival offers from Oakland and Boston. Reports have the Red Sox willing to pay Foulke as much as $24 million over four years, which figures to impact the market for Urbina and Benitez, the next two free-agent closers in the pecking order.


Other big-name free agents on the block this weekend include outfielder Vladimir Guerrero; shortstop Miguel Tejada; catchers Pudge Rodriguez and Javy Lopez; and pitchers Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood and Sidney Ponson.


Stars mentioned in trade rumors include Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Troy Percival, Magglio Ordonez, Kevin Brown and Alfonso Soriano.


Benitez, 31, made $6.9 million last year while posting a 2.96 ERA in 69 games. He blew eight saves in 29 chances but has a career save percentage of .849.


A return to the closer's role is important for Benitez, Powers said, adding that all four teams in contention would use him that way.


"The only criteria we put out there was he has to be the closer," Powers said.


The Marlins did not offer Urbina arbitration by Sunday's deadline, meaning he will sign elsewhere. Seattle did not offer Benitez arbitration, so he can be signed without draft-pick compensation as well.


Benitez is familiar with South Florida and considered buying property in the area last winter. He also is friendly with Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo, a fellow Dominican.


"Armando loves it down there, absolutely loves it," Powers said. "He knows Luis. Those guys are pretty good friends. He knows a bunch of the guys. He's down there often. He loves South Beach. He likes that team."


Braden Looper, the Marlins' closer until the final week of the regular season, isn't expected to be tendered a contract by the Dec. 20 deadline. Looper, who made $2.4 million last year, could see that figure climb past $4 million in salary arbitration.


It's possible the Marlins will non-tender Looper, then try to re-sign him for a lower fee.


If the Marlins don't get Benitez, they could turn their sights to former closers Jose Jimenez or Mike Williams. Both free agents finished last season as setup men in Colorado and Philadelphia, respectively, and could share closer duties with Marlins right-hander Chad Fox, who re-signed this week for $1.2 million.


The Marlins also would have trade interest in right-hander Scott Williamson if the Red Sox decide to move him.


Had the Marlins retained Rodriguez, they would have sifted through the bargain bin for a few cheap arms. However, the catcher's departure potentially leaves them with as much as $10 million to spend on three roster spots while still remaining below their $60 million payroll target.


That calculation assumes the departures of Looper and outfielder Juan Encarnacion, another non-tender candidate due more than $5 million in arbitration.


While the Marlins continue to monitor Lopez, the Orioles remain the favorites to sign the former Atlanta stalwart. Pittsburgh would gladly move catcher Jason Kendall, but the Pirates are unwilling to eat more than half of the $42 million that remains on his contract.


Kendall also has a blanket no-trade clause, and it's unknown if the California resident would welcome a move to South Florida.


The bullpen became even more of a front-burner issue after former Twin Eddie Guardado (three years, $13 million) signed with Seattle this week and Tim Worrell jumped to Philadelphia for $5.5 million over the next two years.


Other relievers to sign in recent days included Kerry Ligtenberg (Toronto), Scott Sullivan (Kansas City), LaTroy Hawkins (Cubs), Shigetoshi Hasegawa (Seattle) and Tom Gordon (Yankees).


"Those guys are just flying off the board," said an official from a National League club.


Mike Berardino can be reached at [email protected]. Email story

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Copyright ? 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel




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