Sosa still has the presence to make a splash

While the Baltimore Orioles pursued free agents Carl Pavano, Richie Sexson and Carlos Delgado with vigor this offseason -- only to come up empty each time -- team officials steadfastly shot down a prominent rumor that refused to go away.

Sammy Sosa, Orioles executives insisted time and again, would not be playing right field in Camden Yards in 2005. They didn't care how many times it was speculated in chat rooms or "Rumor Central." The Orioles privately said they had no interest in Slammin' Sammy. No way. No how.

Maybe it was a need to do something after all that rejection this winter, or a desire to generate some positive PR. Or perhaps, if the buzz making the rounds late Friday night was accurate, Miguel Tejada put on a full-scale lobbying effort in Sosa's behalf. Whatever the reason, it didn't take Baltimore's general managing tandem of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan long to stray from its "deliberate" reputation and spring into action. Just two days after Delgado spurned a four-year, $48 million offer from Baltimore, the Orioles bagged themselves some headlines and an honest-to-goodness marquee acquisition.

Sammy Sosa is close to becoming a Baltimore Oriole, with only the obligatory physicals and approval from commissioner Bud Selig and the Players Association standing in the way. Although one official close to the situation cautioned that there are still "a lot of I's to dot and T's to cross," two sources said the Orioles have agreed to send Jerry Hairston Jr. and two minor leaguers, believed to be pitcher David Crouthers and second baseman Mike Fontenot, to Chicago for the seven-time All-Star right fielder. It's unclear whether those three players constitute the entire package from the Orioles' end.

Sosa arrives in Baltimore with plenty of baggage -- from steroid whispers to a reputation as a "me first" guy with an ego that's held up better than his skills. His home run total has fallen from 64 to 35 since 2001. His RBI total has been halved, from 160 to 80. And his on-base percentage has declined each year, from .437 to .399 to .358 to .332. Worst of all, Sosa couldn't co-exist with manager Dusty Baker and walked out on the Cubs in the season finale, and it was clearly time for him to go.

Yet for all the negatives, Sosa still has the presence and cachet to make an impression in Baltimore. Think about it. The Orioles were sixth in the American League in runs scored last year, even though they ranked 13th with a .254 batting average against lefty pitching. A questionable starting rotation still makes them extreme long shots to challenge New York and Boston in the division. But they'll sure be fun to watch.

If the season began today, manager Lee Mazzilli could run out second baseman Brian Roberts in the leadoff spot. He led the league with 51 doubles in 2004. Melvin Mora, a leading candidate for the No. 2 hole, won a Silver Slugger award at third base. Mazzilli could follow them with Tejada, who led the majors with 150 RBI. He could pencil in Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, back-to-back Hall of Famers-in waiting, in the fourth and fifth spots, followed by Javy Lopez, who hit 43 homers for Atlanta two years ago, and Jay Gibbons, who knocked in 100 runs for the O's in 2003.

For the Cubs, the ongoing Sosa-Baker tiff threatened to become a bigger distraction than the state of Terrell Owens' ankle at the Super Bowl. According to a source, the Cubs will be responsible for about $10 million of Sosa's $17 million contract in 2005 once the trade goes through. The Cubs would like to apply that $7 million in savings to a one-year, incentive-laden contract for Magglio Ordonez, whose questionable left knee apparently scared off the Orioles. But in light of reports that agent Scott Boras is discussing a five-year deal for Ordonez with Detroit, the Cubs are backing off Ordonez and considering free-agent Jeromy Burnitz as a Plan B in right.

Hairston, 28, gives the Cubs a dose of speed and contact hitting, and looks like a good bet to supplant Corey Patterson in the leadoff spot. Hairston's on-base percentage has gone up every year since 2001 -- from .305 to .378 last season. He's maturing at the plate and developing better discipline and strike zone judgment as he goes.

Although Hairston would play second base in a perfect world, the Cubs are committed to Todd Walker at the position and plan to use Hairston in the outfield. Hairston logged time in right, left and center for the Orioles last season.

"I talked to Jerry recently, and he's fine with coming in here and competing for the center field job in spring training," Beattie said earlier this week, before the trade with Chicago. "He just wants to have a regular position -- not be a super utility guy.''

Before dealing Sosa, Cubs GM Jim Hendry had to listen to fans complain about the team's relatively uneventful winter. It consisted primarily of re-signing the middle infield combination of Nomar Garciaparra and Walker and adding some depth to the bullpen. With the Sosa-Baker soap opera out of his hair, Hendry can now focus on assembling the final pieces for spring training.

And while it remains to be seen if Sosa is still a star -- or just a fading basher with baserunning and defensive issues -- the people of Baltimore certainly seem excited about him. For the next few days, at least, the www.selltheorioles.com crowd will have something else to do besides hammer owner Peter Angelos.

Jerry Crasnick is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. He can be reached via e-mail.