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HOUSTON -- Mark Loretta, a proven veteran with a superb resume, will bring his versatility to Houston for his second stint with the Astros in 2007.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."Roy called [club owner] 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 base and expected to log his 3,000th hit in 2007, it's likely Loretta would be used in a utility role. Loretta also has extensive experience at first, third and shortstop.Loretta clearly would provide insurance at third in case Morgan Ensberg, coming off a 2006 season during which he hit .235 and battled injury issues, does not make a successful comeback."[Second base is] Biggio's position," Garber said. "He'll fill in, play around the infield, a little third, short and first once in a while.""This was a unique opportunity to acquire a high-caliber offensive and defensive player late in the free-agent market," general manager Tim 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 will also share the utility label with Eric Bruntlett, who recently avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal.Loretta played for the Boston Red Sox last season. His 155 games in 2006 marked a career-high total, and he recorded his 10th consecutive season with a final average of .280 or higher. His .994 fielding percentage was the highest for a second baseman in the history of the Boston Red Sox franchise, and he committed only four errors in 639 total chances.The 12-year veteran and two-time All-Star also has played for the Brewers, Astros and Padres and has a .299 career batting average. His stint with the Astros 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.Loretta was the winner of the 2006 Hutch Award, given annually to a Major League Baseball player who best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire of baseball great Fred Hutchinson.
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