Urbina to 'wait it out' for right deal

Ugueth Urbina is willing to stay unsigned for as long as possible until the right deal comes his way.

Originally Published: January 23, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

His team won the World Series -- and openly acknowledged it never would have gotten there without him. He was traded just last summer for a guy who had once been the first overall pick in the whole amateur draft. And he averaged more strikeouts per inning than Mariano Rivera, Troy Percival or Eddie Guardado.

So why is Ugueth Urbina still adding to America's bulging unemployment rolls?

Why, in fact, is this man threatening to sit out spring training -- or even sit out the season -- because he's not even being offered Danys Baez money, let alone Keith Foulke money?

Ugueth Urbina
Ugueth Urbina will bring stability to Detroit's bullpen next year.

It may not be a bigger mystery than Sasquatch. But Urbina's bizarre inability to find work is certainly one of the biggest mysteries of another strange baseball offseason.

"Oh, he's gotten some offers," said Chris Leible, one of the 29-year-old closer's agents. "But they've all been pretty much the same kind of offer. Ugie feels he's worth a certain amount. And he's not getting offered near that amount. So he just said, 'Fine, I'll wait it out.' "

And apparently, when Urbina says, "wait," he means, "wait." Not just till Christmas. Not just till Groundhog Day. This guy, from all accounts, will wait till the 4th of July if the alternative is taking a one-year deal for a couple of million dollars.

Urbina made $4.5 million last year with the Rangers and Marlins. He'd earned $6.7 million the year before in Boston. So his friends say he's still steaming about last winter's pay cut.

Now -- like the catcher he smooched on the cheek last October, Pudge Rodriguez -- Urbina is determined not to take a second step in the wrong economic direction. Especially after a season in which his biggest save wasn't Game 1 of the World Series. No, Urbina saved the Marlins' whole season. Even Jack McKeon admitted that.

"This really is a lot like Pudge," Leible said. "(Urbina) had a great year. He was leading the league in saves when he got traded by the Rangers. Then he went to the Marlins and had a one-point-something (1.41) ERA. ... So he doesn't feel like he deserves a pay cut. He said, 'I made my money. I got my ring. Now whatever happens, happens. I'll ride it out.' "

Leible refused comment about which teams are still interested in Urbina. But it isn't too hard to figure out. One of his former clubs, Montreal, is believed to have offered him a one-year deal, with an option, for between $2 million and $3 million a year. The Pirates are believed to be interested, but they've been offering all their free-agent possibilities less than $2 million.

The Twins still need a closer to replace Guardado, but they're trying to cut payroll. The Mets and Devil Rays were thought to have had some interest -- but wound up signing the closer Urbina displaced in Florida, Braden Looper (for two years, $6.75 million), and Baez (two years, $6.5 million), respectively.

And the Marlins? They never even called.

"We never spoke with the Marlins," Leible said. "Never got one call from them. Not to say, 'Thanks.' Not to say, 'Would you be interested in signing here for less money?' Nothing. It wasn't worth a call? I don't understand that."

But with the Marlins, this appears to be just about money. They had heard Urbina say he expected to get a raise -- and a three-year deal. They weren't prepared to pay their closer $5 million. So they simply moved on -- and signed Armando Benitez for a one-year, $3 million deal.

His feeling is, let's just wait and see what happens this spring, see if anybody realizes they need a closer. What does he have to lose? But I know one thing: If anybody will sit out, it would be him. I wouldn't put it past him. Believe me.
Chris Leible, agent for free agent closer Ugueth Urbina

As we surveyed several other teams about Urbina this week, we heard the same complaint: Money, money, money.

"I was asking about him at the winter meetings," one NL executive said Friday. "I told a guy from one team who I know really likes him, 'I bet you'll wind up signing Urbina.' And that's just what he said: 'He wants too much money for us.' "

There were 11 closers, or potential closers, on the free-agent market this winter -- not even counting the two Japanese closers (Akinori Otsuka and Shingo Takatsu) who signed with the Padres and White Sox, respectively. But only two signed deals averaging more than $4 million a year -- Foulke (four years, $24 million) and Guardado (three years, $12.25 million). And all that supply sure didn't do wonders for Urbina's demand.

Then again, you could make a case that Urbina had a better year than any of those free-agent closers except Foulke. Urbina averaged 9.12 strikeouts per nine innings -- to Foulke's 9.14 and Guardado's 8.27. Urbina also allowed just 6.5 hits per nine innings -- to Foulke's 5.9 and Guardado's 6.9.

And if you toss out the closer elite of Eric Gagne, John Smoltz, Billy Wagner and Foulke, Urbina's season compared favorably with just about anyone else out there. In fact, he had better strikeout and hit ratios than Mariano Rivera (8.02 K/9 IP, 7.8 H/9 IP).

Granted, Urbina didn't have a great postseason (four saves, two blown saves, a 3.46 ERA overall, a 6.00 ERA in the World Series). And two scouts we talked to about him said his velocity was down and that he "looked gassed."

But they also admitted McKeon rode him hard and used him a lot from late September on. And there were few bigger moments in that World Series than Urbina's Game 1 whiff of Jorge Posada with the tying and winning runs on base in the bottom of the eighth inning.

So where will this man pitch this season? Got us. Could be Montreal/San Juan. Could be Japan. Could be none of the above.

"His feeling is, let's just wait and see what happens this spring, see if anybody realizes they need a closer," Leible said. "What does he have to lose? But I know one thing: If anybody will sit out, it would be him. I wouldn't put it past him. Believe me."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com