Mike Morgan is the ultimate money pitcher

Ken Rosenthal

December 06, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Three days later, it still hasn't sunk in. Mike Morgan, a $3 million man. Just what everyone expected when he pitched for the Orioles in 1988.

Mike Morgan, the guy who gave up six straight hits without getting an out in Kansas City to send the Orioles to 0-16. Mike Morgan, the guy who won only one game the entire year.

Morgan, 32, had three decent seasons in Los Angeles, but still was only 33-36. He's coming off his first winning year, and his career began in 1978. Lifetime, he's 67-104.

You think the New York Mets giving Bobby Bonilla $29 million is crazy? How about the Chicago Cubs giving Morgan $12.5 million to pitch in Wrigley Field for four years?

Morgan earned it the new-fashioned way, putting together a monster 14-10 season. No doubt "Morgan Money" will be a catchphrase for free-agent pitchers at next week's winter meetings.

Already, the Mets are saying they won't re-sign Frank Viola because they don't want to give him the type of contract between Morgan's and Tom Candiotti's (four years, $15.5 million).

Viola and Morgan.

Just the comparison we made in '88.

This is nothing against Morgan, a likable sort whose one year in Baltimore was marred by injury. But it's doubtful the Great Fireballer in the Sky intended him to be as rich as J.P. Morgan, OK?

In '88 his only win was in relief, and it didn't come until July 23. He opened as the Orioles' No. 2 starter, lost four times during the 0-21 streak and eventually was replaced by the immortal Jose Bautista.

Four players from the '88 club -- Morgan, Eddie Murray, Mickey Tettleton and Mike Boddicker -- are now under contract for a combined $37 million.

You'd think those Orioles finished 107-54 instead of the other way around.

"It just goes to show you," Morgan cackled from his Utah home the day before he signed, "that anything can happen in this game."

In the big-money era that's true not just on the field, but in the negotiating rooms as well. Win a few games, and it's rags to riches. Somewhere, Jeff Robinson is plotting to be the next Morgan.

Where does this leave the Orioles?

Gnashing their gold-plated teeth.

It's no secret they're trying to sign a 200-inning pitcher. But in a farcical twist, they're actually aiming lower than Morgan, whom they acquired for Ken Dixon in the winter of '87 and traded for Mike Devereaux in the spring of '89.

The Orioles paid Morgan a mere $375,000 in '88. "I guess they don't feel they have the money to sign me now," he cheerfully noted. "I'm not as cheap as I used to be."

Problem is, even a Bob Walk or Kirk McCaskill will command mega millions in this market, and to whatend? Free-agent pitchers who sign long-term contracts rarely prove worth the investment.

Yet trading for a quality pitcher is even more difficult, given the intense demand. A year ago, the Orioles gave up three young players for Glenn Davis. If they had the talent to swing another blockbuster, they would not have lost 95 games.

So, club officials already are lapsing into wishful thinking. True, Bob Milacki, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina should exceed their innings totals from last year. But even if each makes 35 starts, that still leaves 57 other games.

A free agent could close the gap. But this year's crop is thin, which only adds to the risk. Last winter the Orioles wanted Matt Young. They wisely yielded to Boston when his price soared past $6 million for three years, but who knew he'd be a bust then?

Morgan got nearly twice as much as Young for one extra year. Yes, he was third in the NL with 236 1/3 innings and seventh with a 2.78 ERA. But let's face it, 14-10 is 14-10.

It's true Morgan became a more confident pitcher in L.A. thanks to pitching coach Ron Perranoski, who convinced him to change his grip and move from the right side of the rubber to the left.

It's also true that he always seems to get poor run support. The classic example: With the Orioles 0-10 in '88, he shut out Cleveland on two hits for nine innings, then watched in horror as the club lost 1-0 in 11 to fall to 0-11.

Morgan also lost the second game of that season to Milwaukee 3-1 despite pitching a six-hit complete game. But of the Cleveland no-decision, he said, "That's the one that stuck out.

"A two-hitter, on a 20-below zero night, in shirt sleeves. It was one of the better games of my career. But I'd have 100 wins in the big leagues by now if I'd won all the games I should have."

Sounds like a journeyman with 67 career wins, not the latest free-agent catch. Mike Morgan, the guy who finished 1-6 in '88 with a 5.43 ERA. Mike Morgan, the $3 million man.

It will never sink in.

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