DETROIT -- For the second consecutive year, the Tigers plucked the last prominent free agent off the market with Spring Training just around the corner. But the key to signing Magglio Ordonez was staying one step ahead of the other teams, with a major assist from their owner.

In what could be called a mutual declaration of faith, Ordonez agreed to a five-year contract over the weekend that could extend to seven seasons should his options be picked up or vest with incentives. By offering the four-time All-Star the long-term contract he had been seeking despite an injury-shortened contract season, Detroit found the middle-of-the-order hitter it had been seeking all offseason.

"This is two years in a row. Sometimes things don't happen as quickly as you'd like," manager Alan Trammell said. "But nevertheless, we're going into Spring Training here real soon with another impact player."

Sammy Sosa

It was a match that took nearly two months of talks, meetings, and medical reports to sort out, much like the Tigers' deal last year at this time with All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez, another Scott Boras client who lasted well into the offseason. He was the next-to-last major free agent left on the market a year ago before the Tigers signed reliever Ugueth Urbina with little more than a week to go in Spring Training.

Neither of those deals, however, were worth as much or as long as this one. Ordonez will earn $75 million over five years -- part of it deferred after the first two seasons -- and as much as $105 million with options. On the other end, the contract includes an injury clause that would allow the Tigers to void the remaining years and recoup a $6 million signing bonus should Ordonez miss more than 25 days to the disabled list this season with specific left knee problems similar to what he suffered last season.

In other words, the Tigers would only be obligated to pay Ordonez's 2005 salary. It was a non-negotiable issue which Boras and the Tigers made workable.

"As long as he's healthy," Tigers vice president and chief legal counsel John Westhoff put it, "we wanted to make a commitment."

Ordonez was limited to 52 games and 202 at-bats last year due to two meniscus tears in his left knee, one of which wasn't discovered until later in the season when he visited a doctor in Austria. That doctor also took care of a condition known as bone marrow edema in the same area, related to a larger issue called osteochondtritis.

Those conditions made Ordonez the biggest question mark on this winter's free agent market. Unlike Rodriguez a year ago, Ordonez was expected to remain unsigned late into the offseason. At this point, Ordonez estimated he'll be at 75 to 80 percent of his full speed for the start of Spring Training. He wasn't cleared to resume baseball activities until January, and he didn't work out for any team until Trammell watched him run on Thursday.

By then, however, the Tigers had pretty much seen all they needed to know about his knee, and it was more a matter of finding out how close he was to being at full speed for Opening Day. The Tigers requested medical reports on Ordonez as far back as baseball's Winter Meetings in December, and after team doctor Kyle Anderson spoke with the surgeons who performed the operations and determined the knee shouldn't be a recurring problem, they were the first to step forward with a long-term offer. Whereas other players turned offers from Detroit into deals elsewhere, the Tigers beat other clubs to each major step.

"Once there was a determination by the staff that medically Magglio was as far along as he was, I think they pre-empted most teams," Boras said. "I don't think the other clubs were as far along with their research and detail with the medical [issues]. Because certainly once the other teams determined that Magglio was back to his normal course, we started receiving a number of offers. But frankly, by that time we were well down the road with the Tigers."

But one of their most important steps came from owner Mike Ilitch, whose visit with Ordonez and Boras in Miami last month made an impression. As Ordonez listened to Ilitch discuss the direction of the franchise, he opened his mind to the possibility of coming to Detroit.

"He talked straight forward to me and said, 'I want to win, and I want to win now,'" Ordonez said of Ilitch. "When someone talks to you like that, straight forward, you want to win. It's one of the reasons I'm here."

It's one of the reasons why team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski thanked Ilitch first. "We would not be here today without him," Dombrowski said.

When healthy, Ordonez's ability is unquestioned. Ordonez, who turned 31 on January 28, posted five consecutive .300 seasons with at least 29 home runs and 99 RBIs before his injury-shortened 2004 season. His 135 RBIs placed him second in the American League in 2002, while his .320 average that year ranked fifth and his 38 home runs, sixth.

Detroit is the only division rival against which Ordonez does not own at least a .300 average, having hit them for a .287 clip instead. His 14 homers and 56 RBIs are also division lows for Ordonez, though he's played in fewer games against the Tigers than against other AL Central clubs. He's a .259 hitter at Comerica Park with nine doubles, one home run and 13 RBIs in 34 games. Just nine of those games, however, have come since the Tigers brought in the left-field fence.

Since the Tigers and White Sox didn't play each other in 2004 until after the All-Star break, Ordonez did not play in any games at Comerica Park last year. If his health stands up, he'll be playing in the park for quite a while.

"I said it last year with Pudge," Trammell said, "but that old English 'D' looks awful nice on him."