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Royals sign four free agents

Royals sign four free agents

KANSAS CITY -- Christmas arrived a few days early for the Royals.

They signed four free agents -- pitcher Scott Elarton, second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and catcher Paul Bako -- general manager Allard Baird announced Friday morning.

Elarton, signed to a two-year, $8-million contract, figures to be in the starting rotation. Grudzielanek, who signed a one-year deal for $4 million plus an option for 2007, is expected to be the regular second baseman.

Mientkiewicz, signed for one year at $1.85 million plus incentives, is likely to share time with Matt Stairs and perhaps Mike Sweeney at first base. Bako, who got a $700,000 one-year deal, will be the backup to starting catcher John Buck.

"We feel these are all moves that make us better, but fit in with the direction of the club," Baird said.

The signings filled four gaps in one fell swoop for Baird. However, his search for a slugging outfielder continues with free agent Jacque Jones among the candidates.

To clear space on the 40-man roster, the Royals designated for assignment pitchers Shawn Camp and Chris Demaria, outfielder Matt Diaz and injured first baseman Ken Harvey.

Elarton, a right-hander who turns 30 on Feb. 23, was 11-9 with a 4.61 ERA in 31 starts last season for the Cleveland Indians. He worked 181 2/3 innings and gave up 32 home runs.

He gives the Royals a second veteran for the rotation with left-hander Mark Redman, acquired in a trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Elarton, an imposing 6-foot-8, had his best year in 2000 when he went 17-7 for the Houston Astros. He's also pitched for the Colorado Rockies and has a Major League record of 50-47.

"Elarton is an extremely tough guy. He fits in. When he takes the mound, it's all business," Baird said.

Bids for other starting pitchers, including Paul Byrd who signed with the Indians, had fallen short.

Joining a team that lost 106 games last season did not faze Elarton.

"I really don't have any reservations about that. It's a team that's headed in the right direction. I'm not going to say we'll be world beaters, but as long as things are going in the right direction and people start seeing the positives that are going to happen, it's going to be a better atmosphere and we're going to start winning some games," he said.

Grudzielanek, 35, was the St. Louis Cardinals' regular second baseman last year and batted .294 in 131 games with eight homers and 59 RBIs.

He'll move ahead of Esteban German, obtained in a trade from the Texas Rangers at the Winter Meetings. The Royals were looking for an everyday player who could step in while Andres Blanco, Donnie Murphy and Ruben Gotay continue their Minor League development.

"I think the move at second base only helps [shortstop Angel Berroa]. I know he's got one of the better arms in the American League and that he has great range at that position," Elarton said.

"He's a pretty good No. 2 hitter. He just grinds out at-bats -- I think that's the best way to describe him, offensively."

Grudzielanek, who also played for the Montreal Expos, Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs before his one year with the Cardinals, has had four seasons over the .300 mark. His career average is .287.

Initially, Grudzielanek was reluctant to accept less than a two-year deal. However, he took a deal where a second year at $3 million kicks in if he attains 500 plate appearances in 2006. If he doesn't reach that plateau, he can become a free agent.

Mientkiewicz, 31, is a left-handed batter who had a .240 average in 87 games for the New York Mets. His 66 hits included 11 homers.

The Royals were seeking a good fielding first baseman and Mientkiewicz won a Gold Glove in 2001. Last season he made just four errors in 737 total chances.

Mientkiewicz spent most of his years with the Minnesota Twins, hitting .300 in 2003 and .306 in 2001. He's batted .268 in his career.

Bako, 33, played only 13 games last season for the Dodgers before suffering a season-ending knee injury while running to third base.

After a deal with free agent catcher Todd Pratt fell through, the Royals settled on Bako to back up and tutor Buck.

Bako has batted .239 in 530 games for his previous seven clubs.

Last season, Camp worked 29 times in relief for the Royals with a 1-4 record and a 6.43 ERA. Demaria was 1-0 with a 9.00 ERA after a quick rise through the system.

Diaz hit .281 with one homer and nine RBIs in 34 games. Harvey, a 2004 All-Star, missed most of last season with back problems and recently underwent surgery to repair an Achilles tendon tear.

"We're going to approach each one of those guys and try to re-sign them," assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson said. "Each one of them still have some value to the organization in providing some depth, so we're going to go after them rather aggressively."

All in all, it was a merry day for the Royals. Santa already has delivered a big portion of Baird's wish list.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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