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Rockies lose top pinch hitter

DENVER -- The Colorado Rockies failed to reach an agreement
with Greg Norton, leaving one of baseball's best pinch hitters free
to negotiate with other teams.

The Rockies offered salary arbitration to Norton and Mark
Sweeney last month, but Norton declined it on Dec. 19. Sweeney
agreed to a minor league deal on Monday.

The Rockies had until Thursday to sign Norton, but will now have
to wait until May 1 if they want to re-sign him.

Norton has been one of Colorado's most versatile players in his
three seasons there. His .275 average as a pinch hitter is the best
in the majors since 2001, and his 41 RBIs and nine homers are also
tops in that span.

A switch hitter, Norton led the majors with 23 pinch hits and 17
RBIs last season, and hit .324 in 78 appearances off the bench. He
hit .263 overall with six homers and 31 RBIs in 114 games.

Norton played mostly third base for the Rockies, but he's also
played in the outfield and appeared at every infield position.

Norton is a career .249 hitter with 59 home runs and 226 RBIs in
a six-year career that started with the Chicago White Sox.

Sweeney's signing made it unlikely the Rockies would make an
offer to Norton.

Sweeney is a good pinch hitter -- .295 last season -- can play
several positions, and his minor league contract was more in line
with what the Rockies wanted to pay a utility player. Norton made
$600,000 last season and was expected to get a raise.