DETROIT - Mike Ilitch rolled the dice on injury-prone catcher Ivan Rodriguez a year ago, and the Detroit Tigers' owner came up a big winner in the free-agent sweepstakes.
A healthy Pudge finished with a .334 batting average, which was tops among major league catchers, and he drove in 86 runs. He also won his record-breaking 11th Glove Glove Award, and was the first Tigers player to start in an All-Star game since Cecil Fielder in 1991.
Detroit won 72 games with Rodriguez behind the plate, after winning just 43 the year before. That 29-game improvement was the second-best turnaround in the American League since the circuit expanded in 1961.
The Pudge deal made Ilitch look so good in the public's eye - the Tigers not only were a better product on the field, they experienced a 40 percent increase in attendance - he decided to roll the dice on another marquee free-agent yesterday, signing outfielder Magglio Ordonez.
Like Rodriguez last year, Ordonez is considered damaged goods. His surgically repaired left knee scared off several teams.
Yet Ilitch rewarded Ordonez with a five-year, $75-million contract that makes Rodriguez's four-year, $40-million deal look like chump change, although both were negotiated by the same agent, Scott Boras.
Ordonez's contract includes two option years that could raise the total to $105 million over seven seasons. It also includes an injury clause that protects both Ilitch and the Tigers. Should Ordonez spend more than 25 days on the disabled list this season due to problems with his knee, it would allow the Tigers to void the remaining years of his contract after paying him his 2005 base salary of $6 million.
Rodriguez has a similar injury clause, allowing the Tigers to terminate his contract in either of the first two seasons if he spends more than five weeks on the disabled list with a lumbar spinal injury.
Tigers president Dave Dombrowski said yesterday during a news conference at Comerica Park that Ordonez - a four-time All-Star - passed a physical Sunday and is now running without pain in his knee.
"He feels great and we believe that he'll be fine and ready to go at the beginning of the season," Dombrowki said. "He's a big, big addition to our team, a cornerstone, the type of player you build around and try to win championships."
Still, the Ordonez signing, and nearly month-long courtship, will draw plenty of snickers outside the Motor City.
He was anything but a picture of health last season, so no one is quite sure if Ordonez will shrug off the injury bug and put up numbers like Rodriguez did, or if he'll end up being a free-agent bust like Juan Gonzalez.
Ordonez, who turned 31 last month, hit .292 in 202 at-bats for the Chicago White Sox a year ago, but he played in just 52 games and twice had surgery to repair his knee. He then had a falling-out with White Sox general manager Ken Williams over his injury, but after meeting with Ordonez and Boras last month, Ilitch told Ordonez he would do whatever it would take to sign him.
Ilitch was anxious to get a deal done, especially after Steve Finley, Troy Glaus and Carl Pavano had previously spurned the Tigers' free-agent offers.
Ordonez's signing makes a bleak off-season look a little brighter for the Tigers, who signed closer Troy Percival to a two-year, $12 million contract in November.
If healthy, Ordonez has a lot of upside. He is a career .307 hitter who posted five consecutive .300 seasons with at least 29 home runs and 99 RBIs before his injury-shortened 2004.
"I look forward to playing here in Detroit, and I'm going to try to do my best and bring a championship team over here," he said. "I don't think someone would sign me for seven years if my knee wasn't all right."
Ordonez is almost exclusively a right fielder, making 962 of his 989 career starts there with Chicago. That means the highly overpaid incumbent right fielder, Bobby Higginson, likely will have to switch positions, be traded or be released.
Manager Alan Trammell said Ordonez will bat cleanup in Detroit's lineup "because he's an impact-type player."
Perhaps that explains why the Tigers, who have not had a winning record in 12 years, were the only team willing to take a long-term chance on Ordonez.
"We're all aware of the injury Magglio had last year, and at some point in the winter time we asked for the medical records, which were supplied to us," Dombrowski said. "We reviewed them with our team doctor, and we had some further steps we needed to take to have further examination.
"Even though there were concerns, we felt very good about where Magglio's progress was in rehab. The doctors believe he will be fine, as do we."
If Ordonez's knee is indeed fine, look out. The Tigers might actually make some noise in the AL Central this season.