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01/04/07 10:33 PM ET

Astros, Loretta agree to one-year deal

Veteran infielder returns to Houston in likely utility role

HOUSTON -- Mark Loretta, a proven veteran with a superb resume, will bring his versatility to Houston in 2007, for his second stint with the Astros.

Loretta, who played briefly with Houston in 2002, signed a one-year deal worth $2.5 million, but the contract could be worth as much as $3.5 million if incentives are met.

According to Loretta's agent, Bob Garber, Loretta had an offer from the Rangers worth $1 million more. The Reds also made an offer, but Loretta picked Houston, partly because of an aggressive recruiting job by Roy Oswalt and Brad Ausmus. Oswalt put the bug in club owner Drayton McLane's ear, and Ausmus gave his best pitch while working out with Loretta in San Diego, where both reside during the offseason.

"Roy called Drayton McLane and said, 'We need this guy,'" said Garber, who also represents Oswalt. "That's how the ball started rolling. Drayton said, 'OK, I'll call your agent tomorrow.'"

Loretta, 35, has primarily been a second baseman for most of his 12-year career. But with Craig Biggio entrenched at second and expected to log his 3,000th hit in 2007, Loretta will be used in a utility role. He also has experience at first, third and shortstop.

"I don't think there's any controversy there," Loretta said. "Craig is the second baseman. There was no guarantee of me playing any one position on an everyday basis. It'll be a matter of [manager] Phil [Garner] finding a way to mix me in there, to give guys days off. You never can have too many good players on a team. Everybody is playing to win."

Loretta clearly would provide insurance at third in case Morgan Ensberg, coming off a 2006 season in which he hit .235 and battled injury issues, does not make a successful comeback.

That Loretta was available was a surprising, but welcome, turn of events for general manager Tim Purpura, who knew Loretta was looking for an everyday job at second base. Surely, the team that employed a second baseman gunning for a milestone hit halfway through the season would not be high on top of Loretta's wish list.

But when no team stepped up with an offer to give him an everyday assignment, the Astros became more attractive.

"I expected, as a free agent, to have a team come to me and say, 'We want you to be our everyday second baseman,'" Loretta said. "It never really materialized.

"Then I identified teams that I felt could use the 'super-utility'-type player, and Houston was certainly one of those. I felt like I could be a good fit to move around the infield, pinch-hit, double-switch."

"This was a unique opportunity to acquire a high-caliber offensive and defensive player late in the free-agent market," Purpura said. "Mark is a very versatile player and a two-time All-Star who we did not expect to be available, and we are excited about adding a player of his ability to our roster. He will play regularly at all infield positions, and his contribution will definitely make us a stronger team in 2007."

Loretta, who turned down the Reds' offer about a month ago, narrowed his choices to the Rangers and Astros. A desire to play in the National League, which has more of a use for pinch-hitters and defensive replacements, plus a comfort level with Garner -- for whom Loretta played during part of his Brewers tenure from 1995 to 1999 -- prompted him to sign with Houston.

"When we first brought him up to the big leagues, he was used to playing everyday in the Minors," Garner said. "We asked him what he thought of the utility role, and he said, 'It's like being a fireman. You go to work every day, but certainly you're not putting out fires everyday. But you go to work prepared to put out a fire. That's what this is like.' I thought that was a brilliant parallel. He will absolutely make the most of anything that's in front of him."

Plus, Loretta is familiar with the Astros organization. His stint with the club five years ago was brief, but memorable. He hit .424 (28-for-66) with two homers and eight RBIs in 21 games in September of 2002, after he was acquired from Milwaukee on Aug. 31 in exchange for left-hander Wayne Franklin and infielder Keith Ginter.

"It was certainly a factor, having been there, and having had success, even though it was for just a month," Loretta said. "I feel comfortable with the organization."

Although Loretta can play all infield positions, he may have to shake off a bit of rust when he gets to Spring Training. Since 2003 he has played almost exclusively at second base. He's logged 171 career games at third, but he's played there only once in the past four seasons. He played 11 games at first base in 2006 and three games at shortstop in 2003.

Loretta looks forward to reuniting with third-base coach Doug Mansolino, also a Brewers alum, to work on his fielding.

"I've always been a middle infielder," Loretta said. "I've played a lot at first and a fair amount at third. I think you could group all three together as being a similar comfort level. I'll have to get to Spring Training and work at those positions more than I have. I'll work hard to get that back. I don't anticipate it being a big deal."

Having played for the Astros before, Loretta knows the expectations on this club. In case he forgot, McLane was more than happy to remind him.

"Drayton called me yesterday and said, 'I'm tired of losing,'" Loretta laughed. "I said, 'Drayton, you were in the World Series two years ago.' He said, 'I want to be there every year.'"

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