O's Sign ERA Shrinker Catcher 

O's Sign ERA Shrinker Catcher

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles finalized their first major move of the offseason Tuesday, announcing the signing of free agent catcher Ramon Hernandez to a four-year contract with an option for a fifth season.
Hernandez comes to the Orioles following an injury-plagued year with the Padres. A sprained wrist that eventually led to two trips to the disabled list and surgery limited him to 99 games with San Diego. But Hernandez hit a career-best .290 with 12 homers and 58 RBIs anyway.

Hernandez likely will take over the everyday catching from Javy Lopez. The Orioles believe Hernandez is a solid catcher who is a good fit to work with their young pitching staff.

"If you look at his record of handling pitching staffs, wherever he goes, the ERA goes down," said executive vice president Mike Flanagan. "And I think for us, when you go about building the club, I think that part of it is you want to look at strength up the middle of the diamond. I think when you look at Ramon behind the plate, when you think of the two All-Stars in the middle of the diamond, you have to be impressed."

Hernandez said he is excited to come to Baltimore and hopes to help the Orioles get back to being a strong club once again.

"I'm going to try to do my best and try to help this ballclub to win games and try to go to the postseason and the World Series," Hernandez said. "I think that's the main goal for everybody."

The question now will be what the Orioles will do with two All-Star catchers. If the Orioles keep Lopez, they've already talked about him playing at first base as well as helping at designated hitter and doing some catching.

The other moves the Orioles make during the offseason could likely determine what happens to Lopez. Reports have swirled that former Oriole Jeff Conine might be close to a deal with the team. If so, he could play at first and/or be a DH with Lopez. The one thing that does seem certain is that Hernandez will be the first-string catcher.

"We didn't really sit down and talk about what was going to be the role," Hernandez said. "But whatever role is supposed to be for me to help this team win, I will do it. I mean, whatever role I have to play to make this team better and win and go to the playoffs and try to get to the World Series, I will be happy to help with that."

Hernandez, who also played with the A's for four-and-a-half years, has a .262 average over 805 games. He has been in the playoffs four of the last five years, batting .455 this past season as the Padres fell to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. He had played with Oakland in the playoffs in 2001-03.

Hernandez made the American League All-Star team in 2003, when he hit .273 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs. His career catcher's ERA of 3.88 ranks second among all catchers who've caught at least 200 games since 1999. In addition, Hernandez has thrown out 25.1 percent of those attempting to steal against him.

"When we went into the offseason, part of our goal was to help the pitching, to help the defense and eventually help the offense," Flanagan said. "And with the signing of Ramon Hernandez today, we feel like we've helped all three departments."

And Hernandez was glad to help the Orioles in their rebuilding.

"You can see this town loves baseball, and [fans] know about the game," Hernandez said. "I mean, when you go to a town and when you leave your team, you're trying to go to a town where they love the game and know the game. I think this city loves the game. When a player has to pick a team, I think this is one of the best teams a player could [pick]."

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