McDonald's off-season choice: Take pay cut, or cut his Orioles ties

July 15, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

It's up to Ben McDonald. He can stay with the Orioles next season if he agrees to a major salary cut. Or he can allow his agent to play hardball, and wind up with another team.

McDonald, 27, is earning $4.5 million this season, and is on a pace to win four games. That's hardly a position of strength in a game where the financial picture is increasingly bleak.

Under the current labor agreement, McDonald will again be eligible for salary arbitration at the end of the season. Under most of the new proposals, he'd become a free agent.

Either way, he probably can forget about becoming a $5 million pitcher. In fact, he might be fortunate to get $3 million, although that is hardly the opinion of his agent, Scott Boras.

Asked about the possibility of a depressed market, Boras said, "I've heard that so many times, so many years in much worse situations. It's never been true."

Boras points to the signings of Bill Swift and Danny Jackson last winter as cases in point. He thinks McDonald is just now maturing, and will only improve.

McDonald certainly pitched well last night in his first start in nearly a month, striking out eight and allowing only one earned run in six innings in the Orioles' 7-2 loss to Kansas City.

His record is 2-5, but the Orioles are averaging only 3.45 runs per game when he pitches, and twice they've been shut out in games that he has started.

Then again, he has a 4.14 ERA.

"Frankly, he's probably having his best season, when you consider the outings he's had and his consistency," Boras said. "Ben McDonald is now a pitcher."

And so, in Boras' mind, the Orioles would be foolish to lose him. He said McDonald gained weight the previous two seasons, and is finally growing into his body.

Problem is, McDonald's teammate, Kevin Brown, is also a Boras client, also coming off an injury and eligible for free agency under any labor circumstance.

Boras, naturally, thinks the Orioles should keep both.

"Ben McDonald is now having the season Baltimore spent all their time investing in," Boras said. "If Baltimore lets one of the two go, who do they pull out of the organization to replace them?

"Thirteen teams have told me they're looking for a No. 1 or 2. Thirteen teams are ready. And the Baltimore Orioles aren't on that list. What does that tell you about the value of pitching?"

Boras believes the entire discussion is premature, and with more than 70 games to play, he's partly right. But his aggressive stance only points out that trouble might lie ahead.

True, McDonald was brilliant last night, striking out eight -- many on forkballs. But in the best-case scenario, he'll finish, what, 10-5?

That would qualify as a successful season, yet even if the Orioles reached the playoffs, it might not improve his bargaining position.

The Orioles could decline to offer him salary arbitration, preferring to re-sign him at greater than the maximum 20 percent pay cut. Boras thought that notion preposterous.

Yet, the same fate could await McDonald even if a new labor agreement is reached. The question might come down to pride. Would McDonald be willing to take a pay cut?

"That's something that is going to be discussed in the off-season," he said last night. "We were talking about it the other day. You don't know what's going to happen.

"I can't control it. It's out of my hands at this point. That's the way I look at it. I'll worry about that in the off-season, let the Orioles and my agent decide what they want to do."

But what if he breaks down or struggles in the second half? The Orioles just acquired Scott Erickson. They saved $2 million by buying out Sid Fernandez. And they might prefer to sign Brown -- or even another free agent.

McDonald might never earn $4.5 million again, just as Brown probably might never earn $4.225 million. But McDonald is an Oriole. He belongs in Baltimore. And he controls his destiny.

Boras is a powerful, cunning agent, but not all of his clients subscribe to his scorched-earth policy. In fact, some actually display minds of their own.

Take Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar. Boras didn't want them to sign long-term contracts when Cleveland began locking up its young players. But Baerga and Alomar ignored their agent's advice.

They wanted to remain loyal to the organization that gave them a chance to play in the majors after acquiring them from San Diego in the Joe Carter trade.

Boras argued that they'd earn more if they kept signing one-year deals and stayed eligible for arbitration, and he probably was right. But for Baerga and Alomar, it wasn't just about money.

Alomar eventually fired Boras. Baerga retained him, but kept making his own decisions. McDonald is the same kind of independent thinker. He doesn't have to be Boras' puppet.

The fact is, the Orioles should want him. Manager Phil Regan figured he'd go four or five innings last night, and McDonald fought off leg cramps to last six. It was a gritty, polished performance.

"He pitched, he really pitched," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said. "A lot of times you come back from a layoff and overthrow. He didn't do that. It was a very mature game he pitched."

Boras is right -- there might be many more ahead. But if McDonald wants to stay in Baltimore, he'll need to be reasonable. The economic climate is changing, no matter what his agent says.

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