Orioles shoot selves in foot on McDonald

June 07, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

Ben McDonald won his arbitration case yesterday, which means his salary in 1995 is $4.5 million, which is more than he is worth, which means he could well be pitching for another club next year. Got that?

McDonald said last night that he wants to finish his career where he started it, but suddenly there is a relatively long list of reasons why it might not happen.

When the question was put straight to him -- can he see the Orioles choosing not to re-sign him next year? -- McDonald didn't hesitate.

"It's definitely a possibility," he said. "This is a great place to play, and I want to be here. But you never know how things are going to go. The Orioles might want to do something else."

Indeed, they might. They have several promising young starters in the minors, most prominently Rocky Coppinger and Jimmy Haynes, offering cheaper alternatives. They also have three cornerstone starters in need of long-term contracts (Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown and McDonald), and McDonald probably is the odd man out if they can only invest in two. And, hey, Andy Benes will be a free agent next year; he'll come cheaper than McDonald.

It won't help that this year's salary brouhaha left both McDonald and the Orioles feeling nastier toward each other. McDonald said he was "disappointed" it had to be arbitrated, claiming "they never showed a willingness to negotiate." And the Orioles, you can be sure, are very miffed at being beaten out of $1.3 million by an agent (Scott Boras) they can't stand.

If McDonald does wind up leaving, the Orioles won't be wrong in a pure economic sense. McDonald is only 56-50 for his career, has never won more than 13 games in a season and has only one win in '95. He isn't a $4.5 million pitcher, yet now he'll always make that much or more. Would you want to sign those checks?

Yet McDonald also is a solid, dependable starter whose marginal won-loss record doesn't reflect his considerable value. He has missed only one of his last 102 starts dating back to 1992, and last year allowed three runs or fewer in 16 of 24 starts.

At a time when every team in the majors is desperate for quality starting pitching, he is an extremely valuable asset. Having to let him go would severely damage the Orioles' rotation. Yet, ironically, the club had much to do with him possibly pricing himself out of a job here.

Call it franchise self-mutilation, a perfect metaphor for the sorry shape baseball is in these days.

If the club hadn't botched its end of McDonald's arbitration case, the sides could have reached an agreement, McDonald's salary would be more appropriate this year and there would be a much better chance of the Orioles keeping him for a long time.

That was what happened each of the prior two times McDonald filed for arbitration. He and the club exchanged figures and agreed to meet in the middle.

"It took three or four days," McDonald said. "If they had offered to meet in the middle again this year, I probably would have accepted."

There was more at stake this time, of course, McDonald asked for $4.5 million (a 40 percent raise) and the Orioles offered $3.2 million, a 16 percent raise for a pitcher who went 14-7 in 24 starts in '94, a fine performance by any reckoning.

The Orioles didn't want to meet in the middle this time, though, obviously feeling that McDonald wasn't worth $3.85 million and a 30 percent raise. (General manager Roland Hemond said the club did make a compromise offer in the last few days, to no avail.)

The flaw in the Orioles' logic, though, was the $4.1 million they gave Brown, who won half as many games as McDonald in '94. Brown has accomplished more than McDonald in his career, but it hardly made sense for a seven-game winner in '94 to make almost $1 million more than a 14-game winner.

Basically, Brown's salary made the Orioles' offer to McDonald look like a low-ball figure. The club paid for that mistake yesterday. Paid in 1.3 million ways.

Hemond insisted last night that the brouhaha "doesn't change our high regard for Ben," and in Hemond's case that is surely true. But Orioles owner Peter Angelos is a feisty, competitive businessman who takes these things personally, and you can be sure he isn't pleased at all, particularly since the unpopular Boras is the winning agent and McDonald has made them look dumb for not agreeing to meet in the middle again. (They would have saved $650,000.)

Whether this was the first step in McDonald's departure remains to be seen, of course. He made it clear yesterday that he wants to stay, but made it just as clear that, baseball's economics being as unpredictable as they are, he wouldn't be surprised to find himself in another uniform.

The Orioles would miss him terribly.

Yet, in the end, they have done much to hasten his possible departure.

What a sport.

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