Addressing their most pressing need of this offseason, the Baltimore Orioles tonight signed free agent shortstop Deivi Cruz to a one-year contract with a team option. Addressing their most pressing desire, the team prepared to take a significant step in their pursuit of one of this offseason's biggest prizes, all-star catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

After three days of fruitless trade talks concerning at least three shortstops, the Orioles moved quickly to sign Cruz, whom they saw as the best of a thin class of free agents at the position.

Cruz, 30, is a six-year veteran with a career batting average of .270 and a reputation for free-swinging and steady-if-unspectacular defense.

"We spent a lot of time the last few days looking at all our options," said Orioles Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie, "and we really felt Deivi would fit in well with us. Defense was our priority with this move. We could have gone in another direction to get more offense, but Deivi fits what we were looking for."

Meantime, the Orioles were preparing to discuss dollar figures for the first time on Monday with agent Jeff Moorad, who represents Rodriguez.

Beattie said he expects to meet again with Moorad on Monday, the final day of baseball's winter meetings, and "try to make it clear what our thoughts are" concerning the money they would be willing to spend on Rodriguez.

The Orioles are believed to be the leading contenders to land Rodriguez, a 31-year-old with 10 Gold Glove awards and one MVP award.

Although Moorad has said there are as many as six teams with interest, the Chicago Cubs are the only other known suitor, and this evening Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Jim Hendry said he believed it was "not feasible" for the Cubs to sign him.

Like all agents, Moorad is wary of the way the free agent market appears to be bottoming out. It is clear Rodriguez will get nowhere near the $15 million or so annual salary he was seeking, and probably not the five guaranteed years he wanted, either.

"This business," Moorad sighed, "is all about timing."

The Orioles' initial offer is expected to be for as many as three guaranteed years (with options that could extend the contract). One industry source predicted the market for Rodriguez could plunge as low as $6 million per year.

Beattie said the "market correction" going on throughout baseball -- with teams less inclined to spend lavishly -- seems to equate to about $3 million or $4 million less per year for star players.

"It doesn't seem like clubs are putting preemptive bids out there," Beattie said. "I get a sense the market is being defined slowly. Players' expectations may fall back in line."

The Orioles' signing of Cruz came about only after three days of trade talks failed to procure a starting shortstop, which the Orioles needed after severing ties with veteran Mike Bordick.

Two of the Orioles' trade targets -- Felipe Lopez of the Toronto Blue Jays and Rey Ordonez of the New York Mets -- went elsewhere in trades today. Lopez went to the Cincinnati Reds in a four-way deal, and Ordonez went to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The Orioles spoke at least twice with the Montreal Expos, but were not enthusiastic about shortstop Orlando Cabrera, one of about a half-dozen high-priced players for whom the cash-strapped Expos are entertaining trade offers.

Beattie said the Orioles had the opportunity to make one trade for a shortstop today, but chose instead to sign Cruz, whom they saw as the best option in a mediocre free agent class that included Jose Hernandez, Rey Sanchez and Chris Gomez.

Cruz made the jump from Class A to the majors with the Detroit Tigers in 1997 and spent five years in Detroit -- the best of which was 2000, when he hit .302 with 46 doubles and drove in 82 runs -- before being traded to the San Diego Padres. He hit .263 with seven homers and 47 RBI in 151 games with the Padres last season. However, he has averaged only 15 walks per season since breaking in.

By giving Cruz only one guaranteed year, it indicates the Orioles see him as a stop-gap player until a long-term solution comes along. One enticing possibility is Miguel Tejada, the Oakland A's shortstop and reigning American League MVP who will enter free agency after the 2003 season.

Oakland General Manager Billy Beane has shot down speculation the A's might try to trade Tejada this winter rather than lose him to free agency at the end of the season, since it is doubtful the small-market team can re-sign him.

Orioles Notes: While uninterested in Cabrera, the Orioles are still speaking with the Expos about ace right-handers Javier Vazquez and Bartolo Colon, and one source identified the Orioles as the surprise "wild-card" team that had Expos GM Omar Minaya all excited this evening.

Minaya said there is one team that he did not expect to have the ability to make a deal with him for one of his aces, but that proved in their discussions with him that they do.