ATLANTA -- Continuing a policy of signing their young players to long-term contracts before they become free agents, the Braves signed catcher Javier Lopez to a three-year, $19.25 million extension Wednesday.
The average of $6.42 million a year makes Lopez the fifth-highest paid player on the team and the second-highest paid position player behind first baseman Andres Galarraga's $8.25 million.
"I got off to a pretty good start and that helped," said Lopez, who is hitting .303 and leads all catchers in the majors with 12 homers and 40 RBI. "This is the organization I grew up with and the organization I want to end my career with. I'm glad I waited until now."
Two years ago Lopez was paid $290,000 and turned down a three-year offer from the Braves for approximately $8 million. With arbitration rights, he agreed to a $3.75 million one-year contract last spring and the two sides continued to discuss a multiyear deal.
Lopez, 27, has a .289 career batting average with 86 homers and 267 RBI in 500 games. With the exception of Mike Piazza, there's no better offensive catcher in the National League, and even Piazza's numbers don't compare with Lopez's right now.
Lopez credits Galarraga's presence in the cleanup spot with helping him determine how pitchers will approach him. He wasn't afforded the same luxury with the left-handed-hitting Fred McGriff in the lineup the past few years.
"I have an idea, I have a clue about what I'm doing every at-bat because Galarraga is in front of me," he said. "That's one of the big keys for me. Watching him gives me an idea of how a pitcher is going to come to me."
Lopez decided to sign a long-term deal now, rather than become a free agent following the 1999 season because he didn't want to risk injury by waiting. In addition, he can sign another long-term deal when this deal expires in 2001.
"We paid a handsome price, a fair price, but a handsome price," general manager John Schuerholz said. "He's right there in the top echelon of catchers."
Lopez said the controversy surrounding Piazza and his contract negotiations with the Dodgers played a role in his decision to get a deal done.
"I was thinking about that," he said. "I saw a lot of things going on around Piazza and I didn't want to go through that."
By signing Lopez, the Braves have all their key players and pitchers signed to long-term deals. Next up is third baseman Chipper Jones, who signed a four-year deal in 1996 and is among the lowest-paid stars in the game at $2.5 million.
"We will commence talks with Chipper when the time is right," Schuerholz said.
Schuerholz and Jones' agent already have begun talking, but Jones wants to wait until after the season to begin serious negotiations.
Curtis Pride was dismayed to learn National League president Leonard Coleman had suspended him for one game for his role in Monday night's melee against the Cubs, while suspending Chicago catcher Sandy Martinez only two games.
"I'm not happy about it because I shouldn't be suspended at all," Pride said. "It's ridiculous. I get suspended for defending myself. It doesn't make any sense. I didn't even throw a punch."
Pride also was fined $300 and chose not to appeal the suspension and missed Wednesday's game.
"If he's suspending me for defending myself, then I'm guilty," Pride said. "(Martinez's) suspension should be at least a week."
Martinez was the instigator of the bench-clearing incident when he shoved Pride, then punched him following a collision at the plate.
"Leonard Coleman is a very fair guy, but I don't understand this one too much," manager Bobby Cox said. "I didn't even agree with Curtis getting thrown out of the game. You've got to get on your feet if somebody is hitting you. It appears to be extremely unfair."
KLESKO BACK IN LINEUP:
Ryan Klesko returned to the lineup Wednesday night after missing two games with a sore neck.
"It's getting better," he said. "Two days ago I couldn't move my head. Now I have movement left to right."
Shortstop Rafael Belliard was forced to don a brace after falling asleep while watching a movie at home and waking up with a stiff neck. He tried to take batting practice and couldn't swing.
Belliard still is on the disabled list with a torn left quadriceps and hoped to head to extended spring training in Orlando soon. The stiff neck has pushed back his timetable.
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