Mussina exception to contract rule

March 10, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Hate to interrupt Camp Serenity with a contract plea, but there are times when you make an exception, particularly when you're talking about the best right-handed pitcher in the American League.

Orioles general manager Pat Gillick needs to make an exception. He needs to sign Mike Mussina to a contract extension before Opening Day, not just for Mussina's sake, but the Orioles'.

Gillick's policy is to postpone any negotiations until after the season; once spring training starts, he wants the focus to be on winning. It's the right policy, because the moment he satisfies one millionaire, the others will howl for theirs.

So what? Tell Bobby Bonilla tough. Ditto for Brady Anderson, and anyone else in the last year of his contract. Mussina is as important to the pitching staff as Cal Ripken is to the rest of the club. That makes him different.

His .703 lifetime winning percentage is the highest among active pitchers, and the highest in club history. Whitey Ford holds the major-league record for highest winning percentage among pitchers with 200 decisions -- .690.

Mussina (71-30) isn't there yet, but he has been remarkably consistent to this point, going 35-15 in his first 50 decisions, and 35-15 in his second. And at the age of 27, he should just be entering his prime.

Sign him for two more years, with an option for a third that will kick in if he pitches a certain number of innings. Mussina would like the third year guaranteed, but Gillick is uncomfortable giving long-term deals to pitchers. Fair enough.

Granted, the situation isn't urgent. Mussina will be an Oriole this season and the next before he becomes eligible for free agency -- assuming that the rules don't change under a new labor agreement.

So, why do this?

One, to keep the relationship as amicable as it has been in Mussina's first four years with the club -- this is the last year of his current two-year deal, and he will earn less ($4 million) than Ben McDonald did last season.

Two, to save money.

There's only one way Mussina won't be in line for a record arbitration award at the end of this season -- if he blows out his arm. His case will be strong even if he goes 12-12. And he's not going to go 12-12 with this team.

The arbitration process is based on a player's previous two seasons, and Mussina finished 19-9 last year, leading the American League in victories. What's he going to do with a club that has an excellent chance to win 90 games?

If he stays healthy, he could put together his first 20-win season and win his first Cy Young Award. He currently has a strained stomach muscle, a problem that illustrates the fragility of all pitchers. But he has had only one injury-marred season (1993) and that partly resulted from the fight with Seattle.

Mussina isn't represented by Scott Boras; he doesn't go for every last dollar. He still returns home to Montoursville, Pa., every winter. He wants to spend his entire career in Baltimore. He values stability as much as any player.

Hence, the "discount rate" he is offering the Orioles -- Mussina earned his economic degrees from Stanford in 3 1/2 years, and loves talking as if he's Alan Greenspan.

"Simply put, for them to give me the security, they're giving up something, and I have to give something," Mussina said. "I'm not sitting here saying they have to pay me top dollar to get an extension when I'm not even a free agent. "The discount rate is probably very reasonable right now. If I go out and have a really good year, the discount rate may go up a little bit. The numbers may be higher in six or eight months than they are now."

In other words, if the Orioles will want to protect themselves, then Mussina is going to protect himself, too. Gillick shouldn't allow it to reach that point. Let's not forget who we're talking about here.

Mussina has led the Orioles in victories in each of his four full seasons -- including his off-year in '93. Jim Palmer is the only other pitcher in club history to put together such a streak. He did it twice, from 1970 to '73, and '75 to '78. But he didn't do it from the start of his career.

Heck, Mussina is the only pitcher in the majors to lead his team in victories the past four seasons. Randy Johnson was 12-14 in '92, the year Dave Fleming went 17-10. Greg Maddux? Yes, he has won four straight Cy Youngs, but Tom Glavine had more victories in '93.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is an ace. Mussina will open the season with a streak of 26 consecutive scoreless innings. He's 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA lifetime in September and October. He'll be an absolute killer if the Orioles ever get into the postseason.

He's worth an exception, don't you think?

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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