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Angels Lose Out in Konerko Race

Times Staff Writer

The Angels and Baltimore Orioles drove the market for free-agent slugger Paul Konerko, but it was the Chicago White Sox who reaped the return, signing the first baseman to a five-year, $60-million contract Wednesday after sweetening their initial four-year offer in the final 24 hours of negotiations.

Konerko, who spent Monday afternoon and Tuesday in Orange County meeting with Angel officials and touring the stadium and surrounding area, called Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman personally Wednesday morning to decline a five-year offer that Stoneman said was “at least as good” as the Chicago deal. Konerko also rejected a five-year, $65-million offer from the Orioles.

“It was 50-50,” Konerko said of his two finalists, the Angels and White Sox. “It was a matter of who came through in the last 24 hours. I was prepared to walk away [from Chicago]. But the White Sox came up and gave me what was fair.”

Konerko’s decision will send Stoneman back to the trade market, where he is expected to explore deals for Boston slugger Manny Ramirez, Kansas City first baseman Mike Sweeney, Texas second baseman Alfonso Soriano and possibly Arizona third baseman Troy Glaus or Seattle third baseman Adrian Beltre.

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The Angels might also look into free-agent infielder Nomar Garciaparra or free-agent catcher Mike Piazza.

“We’ll explore other things and look to improve the offense and the pitching,” Stoneman said. “We’ll keep moving forward.”

Ramirez, 33, who has requested a trade and is so determined to leave the Red Sox he put his Boston condominium up for sale Tuesday, is the most attractive bat available and some within the Angel organization believe he’s a better fit than Konerko. Ramirez, 33, and Garret Anderson could split the left field and DH spots, and if the Angels could package first baseman Darin Erstad and his $8.5-million salary in a deal, that would open first base for promising youngster Casey Kotchman.

But there are major hurdles to a Ramirez deal, namely, the $57 million and three years remaining on his contract and the outfielder’s quirky personality, which has been disruptive at times.

“We do look at character,” Stoneman said. “That plays a big part in winning.”

If the Red Sox demand pitcher Ervin Santana or top power prospect Brandon Wood, or if they refuse to either pay a chunk of Ramirez’s salary or offset it by accepting Erstad or center fielder Steve Finley ($7 million), talks probably won’t go very far.

The Angels agreed to trade Kotchman to the Royals for Sweeney in July, but the deal died when Kansas City wanted the Angels to include additional prospects and assume all of Sweeney’s contract: $22 million for two more years.

There are also concerns about Sweeney’s history of back injuries and whether he’d be an upgrade over Kotchman: Sweeney hit .281 with six home runs in 167 at-bats in the final two months of 2005; Kotchman hit .302 with seven homers in 116 at-bats in that span.

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The Rangers reportedly are shopping Soriano, a power-hitting second baseman, and the Diamondbacks are considering moving Glaus, the former Angel who would have to accept a DH job in Anaheim. The Mariners might be willing to move Beltre if a team would absorb the $50 million remaining on his contract.

If Stoneman can’t acquire a middle-of-the-order bat to bolster the Angels’ inconsistent offense, he said he would be “comfortable” with Kotchman and Juan Rivera again sharing DH duties. Kendry Morales could also emerge as a DH candidate next spring.

“We’re still pretty well off,” Stoneman said. “Just because we didn’t land Konerko, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a good club.”

The Angels pursued Konerko aggressively, bumping their four-year, $48-million offer to five years and a little more than $60 million. But when the White Sox acquired power-hitting Jim Thome from Philadelphia last week -- “That was the best recruiting tool they could have used,” Konerko said -- and added a fifth year to their offer Tuesday, Konerko opted to stay.

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“We gave it our best shot,” Stoneman said. “I knew it would be tough for any player to leave a club he just won a World Series with.” But Konerko nearly did. Asked how close he was to signing elsewhere, Konerko said, “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe it.”

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The Angels, according to a source, have increased their offer to free-agent pitcher Paul Byrd to two years and about $11 million, and the right-hander, who has two-year offers from the Orioles, Rangers and Cleveland, could make a decision this week.

“Paul truly wants to return to the Angels,” agent Bo McKinnis said. “He has spoken to [pitching coach] Bud Black and some Angel players frequently over the past few weeks and would really like to be back with them next year.”

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