BALTIMORE -- It was the winter of 2003, and Derrek Lee, having flown to Maryland, remembers sitting with his family at Camden Yards and talking about the idea of being an Oriole.
"We were extremely close," Lee said of the trade negotiations between the Orioles and Marlins, which fell through when a contract extension couldn't be reached with Lee. "It didn't work out that day."
This winter, the story had a different ending, as Lee, who flew to Baltimore for his physical on Wednesday, officially became an Oriole on Thursday, agreeing to a one-year, $7.25 million deal that could be reach $10 million with incentives.
"I guess I was meant to be an Oriole," Lee said during Thursday's conference call, "because here I am seven years later."
On the Orioles' free-agent radar all winter, the organization, believing Lee would prefer to play on the West Coast, set its initial sights on Adam LaRoche, figuring the 31-year-old would be more attainable. But LaRoche's camp countered Baltimore's escalating offers, according to a source familiar with negotiations, wanting a deal more in line with three years and $31 million. The O's balked and went to Plan B, quickly reaching an agreement with Lee's camp, which was seeking a one-year deal for the veteran.
"Honestly, Baltimore wasn't on my radar [earlier this winter]," Lee admitted. "My agent kept bringing up Baltimore to me, kept speaking about it ... [and] I saw the guys they were signing, how they finished up, and I looked at their lineup and I saw what [manager Buck Showalter] did over there.
"They've always had great fans. I warmed up to it, it grew on me and here I am. I'm very excited."
A two-time All-Star and three-time National League Gold Glove Award winner, Lee is a career .282 hitter with 312 home runs and is just one season removed from 35 homers and 111 RBIs with the Cubs in 2009. The 35-year-old saw his power numbers drop last season -- when he hit .260 with 19 homers and 80 RBIs -- but the Orioles feel he will return to form when healthy in 2011.
"I hear people say I'm old, I'm declining. I want to prove that theory wrong," Lee said. "I've had some pretty productive years. I feel like I'm kind of getting thrown by the wayside because of this one year, so yeah, I've got a chip on my shoulder and I'm anxious to prove these people wrong."
Lee played all season with a torn ligament in his right thumb, an injury that he sustained on Opening Day and one that the 14-year Major League veteran refused to miss time for. He had surgery on Nov. 5 and has been out of the cast for about two weeks, with the hope of being cleared to swing a bat in the next few weeks.
"He played with [the torn ligament] all year, and if you look at his plate appearances, they are all in the 600s," president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said of Lee's thumb injury. "We are thoroughly optimistic it won't be a problem in 2011."
Lauded as a gritty player and a good clubhouse presence, Lee played in 148 games last season, split between Chicago and Atlanta, and is a solid bounce-back candidate for an Orioles organization short on first-base prospects. While he is four years older than LaRoche, who has since signed with the Nationals, the feeling is he is a stronger short-term option.
"You're not going to hear me yell and scream, but I will pull guys aside and let them know how the game should be played," Lee said. "[New reliever] Kevin Gregg will do that as well. You have to get guys pulling on the same rope and moving in the same direction. With all the talent, I don't see why we can't do special things this year.
"I'm a guy who shows up every day to work. Injuries are a part of it, but if you're able to get out there, you get out there. I play hard and really try to lead by example and play the game the right way. That's the way I was brought up."
The acquisition of Lee adds another corner infield power bat -- along with newly acquired Mark Reynolds -- and pencils in Luke Scott as the team's regular designated hitter.
With all major moves in the rearview mirror, the organization has solidified its two biggest needs -- at first and third base -- as well as beefed up a lineup that ranked among baseball's worst in several offensive categories in 2010. In addition to trading for Reynolds, the Orioles dealt a pair of arms to the Twins in exchange for shortstop J.J. Hardy and utility player Brendan Harris, and they re-signed Cesar Izturis to a one-year deal as insurance for second baseman Brian Roberts.
With Gregg's signing, which is expected to be made official following a physical next week, the Orioles still would like to add a lefty to the bullpen. That arm would be more of a bargain-type deal, and the O's would also like to add a veteran starter if a favorable situation presents itself.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.