Ordonez deal remains a toss-up

CHICAGO -- One week after the Garret Anderson signing demonstrated that it can be done, Magglio Ordonez and the White Sox continue the delicate dance that is the in-season contract extension for a premier free agent-in-waiting.

The latest signs have been encouraging for Sox fans who had all but abandoned hope of keeping the homegrown superstar beyond 2004, but there's no way to know where this is leading.

It could be to a signing that keeps him in the organization for at least another four or five years or to a midseason trade to New York, Boston, Los Angeles or elsewhere. The most likely scenario could be a full season in Chicago, perhaps even with a run at an MVP, and then an organizational crisis as he allows the free-agent market to set his value.

General manager Ken Williams won't get painted into a corner. "It's my desire to keep all the good players and core players who are popular with our fans," Williams said. "[Yet] in the course of trying to put a team together, you have to be flexible and explore all options."

That's the crux of this situation from this unusual franchise's standpoint. Due to the marketing brilliance of the Cubs and a string of suspect decisions on their own part, the White Sox have become a middle-market team in the nation's third largest metropolitan area.

With a payroll in the mid-$60 million range -- a level which tied Williams' hands last winter -- they cannot afford to simply throw money at a player, no matter how productive he is.

And the 30-year-old Ordonez, a four-time All-Star in his sixth full big league season, is a quietly spectacular player. He's a career .307 hitter who delivered no less than 29 home runs and 99 RBI each of the last five years, while never striking out more than 77 times. He's a solid right fielder, and he's never been on the disabled list.

He leads by example in the clubhouse, letting his play define him, not his words. He appears immune to walk-year pressure.

Ordonez was the American League player of the week for the opening week of 2004. Through Sunday, he's hitting .286 with four home runs and 11 RBI in 11 games. He had two homers to help the White Sox split a four-game series at Yankee Stadium and he had one in the bottom of the 10th last Thursday, which allowed the Sox to finish a three-game sweep of Kansas City.

Ordonez has long been a favorite of Ozzie Guillen, the long-time shortstop who has replaced Jerry Manuel as the Sox's manager. Both are from Venezuela and Guillen lobbied for Ordonez to get a chance when he was an unknown minor-leaguer.

The Sox haven't always appreciated what they've had with Ordonez. They left him exposed to the Rule 5 draft in December 1996 after he had hit .263 with 18 homers in Double-A. They were blessed that no one grabbed him in that draft.

Williams had him traded to Boston last winter, but the deal for shortstop Nomar Garciaparra (who the White Sox insist they would have held onto, not flipped to Los Angeles, as was widely rumored) was contingent on the Red Sox completing the Alex Rodriguez trade.

This wasn't disrespect on Williams' part. It was simply an acknowledgement that the White Sox could not afford to re-sign Ordonez, who at the time was believed to be seeking a five-year, $75 million deal.

Ordonez is in the last year of a three-year extension he signed in July 2001, covering his last two arbitration seasons and his first possible free-agent year. His salary jumped from $9 million last year to $14 million this season, which makes him the highest-paid player in franchise history.

While Ordonez has always been a good fit on the South Side, where he is a blue-collar answer to the Sammy Sosa phenomenon at Wrigley Field, and says he wants to stay with the White Sox, he could be next winter's Vladimir Guerrero or Miguel Tejada.

"This is going to be my last big contract and I have to take advantage of that," Ordonez told Chicago reporters last week. "It's my last opportunity to get something done."

According to sources, the White Sox have recently offered Ordonez a four-year extension, which is only one year less than he is seeking. The offer is believed to be for about $14 million per year, but to contain language that makes it less attractive to Ordonez, such as possible deferrals and escape clauses.

It's easy to criticize White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf for not spending major market dollars on his payroll. But the reality is that his revenue stream has not kept up with what you'd consider major market, and he has priced many of his fans out of tickets on all but two-for-one nights and kids getting in for $1 on Sunday afternoons.

While defending Reinsdorf is about as much fun as selling the virtues of asbestos, the reality is that he and the men who have helped him keep an eye on the bottom line, the late Jack Gould (whom Guillen honors by wearing his initials on his jersey) and Harvard law and Northwest MBA grad Rick Hahn, have done a great job to keep their team competitive on limited resources. The truth is they shouldn't give Ordonez a blank check.

Did you happen to catch the attendance at U.S. Cellular since Opening Day? The Sox, going head-to-head with the Cubs, had 15,150 and 11,765 on hand for the walk-off victories against the Royals last Wednesday and Thursday.

You can argue, correctly, that these were afternoon games during the school week. But what those totals show is a perilously low season-ticket base.

To a significant degree, broadcast revenues have carried the White Sox in recent years. But they are in the next-to-last year of contracts that were joined with the Bulls at the end of the Michael Jordan era. What happens when those deals are up?

As of Opening Day, Ordonez's $14 million salary accounted for 21.4 percent of the White Sox's total payroll. This not being the NBA, it's not healthy to invest so heavily in one player. Eight teams have one player hogging a bigger share of the payroll -- Toronto (Carlos Delgado), Milwaukee (Geoff Jenkins), Cincinnati (Ken Griffey Jr.), Pittsburgh (Jason Kendall), Texas (Chan Ho Park), Kansas City (Mike Sweeney) and Arizona (Randy Johnson) -- and it's possible none of them will be playoff teams.

Florida and Anaheim had no super salaries when they won World Series in 2003 and '02. Ivan Rodriguez's salary was listed at $10 million last season, but the only way the Marlins were able to sign him was by his agreeing to defer $7 million without interest.

Ordonez is letting his agents, Tom Reich and Adam Katz, do their jobs while he keeps his eyes focused on the next night's pitcher. He is trying hard not to become too absorbed in the contract negotiations.

"If they give me something fair and the years I want, it'll be fine," Ordonez said. "If not, I guess I'll have to go to free agency."

In the meantime, the attention given Ordonez's situation appears to have unsettled Frank Thomas. The two-time MVP has now twice agreed to contracts with Reinsdorf which he later complained about, the latest being the highly complicated (and not completely guaranteed) deal he signed in December 2002 after the White Sox exercised a "diminished skills" clause in a deal he had signed shortly after winning the 1997 batting title.

Thomas exercised his 2004 player option for $6 million and figures to do the same next winter with a 2005 option for $8 million. But he says he's asked Reinsdorf to tear up the contract because "it's a little disappointing on the 1st and 15th of each month."

We should all face such disappointments, right?

There's a better chance of a meteor striking U.S. Cellular than of Reinsdorf revisiting the Thomas negotiations. The organization has its hands full with Ordonez.

If Ordonez wants to stay where he's comfortable, the White Sox are giving him a chance. If he'll stay only at maximum value -- and how does he find out what that is without testing the free-agent market? -- then Williams must consider his options.

He could trade for Griffey, try to win with Griffey and Ordonez playing together and then hang onto Griffey, who has agreed to defer $6.5 million of his $12.5 million salary, which runs through 2008. He could trade for Griffey, then deal Ordonez and open an outfield spot up for the left-handed-hitting Jeremy Reed, who has been compared to Darin Erstad. Reed hit .409 in 66 games at Double-A last year and is currently batting .364 for Triple-A Charlotte.

He could shop Ordonez before the trade deadline, knowing that the strength of the farm system currently is believed to be outfielders, with Joe Borchard and 2003 picks Brian Anderson and Ryan Sweeney among those in the pipeline. He could do the safest thing -- seldom the best -- and let the situation simmer until next winter.

But at this point, he has to consider the unpopular along with the popular.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.