Nomar Garciaparra, only a couple of seasons removed from standing with the best shortstops in the game, agreed Sunday to a one-year, $6-million contract with the Dodgers.
A two-time batting champion and five-time All-Star, but severely limited by injuries for three of the last five seasons, Garciaparra chose his hometown Dodgers over similar offers from the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros. The Dodgers will hold a news conference today at Dodger Stadium.
He is expected to play first base and bat behind cleanup hitter Jeff Kent in an order retooled with the recent additions of shortstop Rafael Furcal and third baseman Bill Mueller. The infield has been entirely remade around Kent, a second baseman with Hall of Fame credentials.
“We are doing our best to put together the best club we can,” Manager Grady Little said. “It looks like we are putting together a pretty good infield.”
Shoring up the outfield is next. The Dodgers also are close to an agreement on a one-year contract with Kenny Lofton, and an announcement could come as soon as today.
Lofton, 38, would play center field much of the time, leaving J.D. Drew in right field. Lofton batted .335 and stole 22 bases in 25 attempts in 110 games for the Philadelphia Phillies last season.
General Manager Ned Colletti also had hoped to add veteran Reggie Sanders in left field, but has found competition from American League teams that view Sanders as a designated hitter and are perhaps willing to give him more than a one-year deal.
Garciaparra, who joins former Boston Red Sox teammates Derek Lowe and Mueller, along with Little, his manager for two seasons in Boston, also has agreed to play left field if the Dodgers are unable to upgrade there.
A goal for Garciaparra -- and the Dodgers -- is for him to maximize his plate appearances. His contract has incentives based on playing time that could bring the deal to more than $8 million. Injuries limited him to 247 plate appearances last season and 354 in 2004, but he had well over 600 in 2003 and in 2002.
“Right now he needs to put together a full season and keep healthy,” said Little, who spoke with Garciaparra over the weekend. “He needs to put in 500 to 550 at-bats. If he does that he’ll be back on track.”
Garciaparra, 32, was comfortable with a one-year deal because he is young enough to attract a lucrative long-term contract if he re-establishes himself as an elite hitter. In 10 seasons, he has a .320 batting average and has hit more than 20 home runs six times.
Born in Whittier, Garciaparra graduated from St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, then attended Georgia Tech before being taken in the first round of the 1994 draft by the Red Sox. He was the American League rookie of the year in 1997, the season he began a string of five All-Star appearances in seven years. He won batting titles in 1999 and 2000, when he hit .357 and .372, respectively.
Once an iconic figure in Boston, Garciaparra, wearing his familiar No. 5, delighted Fenway Park fans with his aggressiveness at shortstop and at the plate. Amid what would become difficult negotiations for a contract extension, however, Garciaparra nearly was traded to the Chicago White Sox before the 2004 season in a three-way deal that would have involved then-Texas Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Then, as tensions grew from the negotiations, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs three months before Boston won its first World Series in 86 years.
Because of wrist and Achilles injuries, Garciaparra was limited to 81 games in 2004. He signed a one-year, $8.25-million contract with the Cubs after the season, and played only 62 games in 2005 because of a torn left groin.
After he came off the disabled list Aug. 5, Garciaparra regained his stroke. In his final 47 games, his .318 batting average, .347 on-base percentage and .531 slugging percentage nearly mirrored his career averages.
The Red Sox have added and subtracted two shortstops since they traded Garciaparra: Orlando Cabrera, with whom they won the World Series, and Edgar Renteria, traded this month to the Atlanta Braves.
With Garciaparra, Furcal and Mueller on the field, and a front-office overhaul, the organizational changes have come quickly since the Dodgers lost their 91st game on the season’s final Sunday.
In the 2 1/2 months that followed, they fired manager Jim Tracy and general manager Paul DePodesta, and hired Colletti and Little. Center fielder Milton Bradley and infielder Antonio Perez were traded to Oakland for a minor-league outfielder.
Decisions on whether to offer arbitration to catcher Jason Phillips, first baseman Hee-Seop Choi and relief pitchers Giovanni Carrara and Kelly Wunsch must be made by Tuesday. Phillips, who lost the starting job to rookie Dioner Navarro in August, probably will not be back.
Dodger forays into the free-agent market probably will continue because Colletti wants to acquire a starting pitcher without trading top prospects. Right-hander Brett Tomko is one in a small handful of pitchers the Dodgers are chasing, but he also is considering signing with the San Diego Padres.
Colletti is rebuilding with established players, back-loading contracts into the next Dodger era, when their prospects are supposed to arrive, full of promise and short on salary. Still, the improvements have not come cheaply -- the 2005 payroll already is approaching $90 million.