Key looks like another step to mint for Orioles' Mussina

December 10, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

Alex Fernandez got $35 million for five years. John Smoltz got $31 million for four. And Roger Clemens almost certainly will end up in the $7-million-per-year range.

What would that make Mike Mussina as a free agent?

The $8 million man?

Quite possibly, seeing as how Mussina owns the highest winning percentage among active major-league pitchers (.687), and he's still only 28.

But Mussina, eligible for free agency after next season, said yesterday that he wants to stay in Baltimore, and would be willing to sacrifice money for long-term security.

And if the market gets to $8 million?

"It might, but if you sign a three- or four-year deal for something below that, then that's what you do," Mussina said. "I'm not playing the game to make every penny I can make. I just want to play."

The Orioles are in a difficult spot -- they're facing a luxury tax on their payroll, and Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson also want extensions -- but Mussina, the staff ace, is perhaps their most irreplaceable part.

His agent, Arn Tellem, has warned that the Orioles could be looking at "an Albert Belle scenario" if the right-hander does not agree to a multi-year contract by Opening Day.

Mussina is less adamant, but given the latest explosion in the pitching market, general manager Pat Gillick needs to abandon his informal policy of signing pitchers for only two years.

Even though Mussina is coming off probably his worst statistical season, the signing of Jimmy Key and hiring of pitching coach Ray Miller could help him re-emerge as one of the most dominant pitchers in the game.

First, Key.

"The biggest thing I like about it is, I don't have to pitch against him anymore," Mussina said. "He beat me every stinking time."

That's true -- Key is 3-0 in five career starts against Mussina, including his Game 3 masterpiece in the American League Championship Series.

But former pitching coach Mike Flanagan, a former teammate of Key's in Toronto, said Mussina also might benefit from the veteran left-hander's presence.

"He'll be good with Mussina," said Flanagan, now an Orioles TV )) commentator. "He's been through the wars. He's just real good in the clubhouse. He's definitely a leader."

And Miller?

The new pitching coach said he already has detected from videotapes that Mussina might be tipping his pitches from the stretch, particularly with runners on second.

That discovery could help explain why opponents batted .311 with runners in scoring position against Mussina last season -- compared with .235 the previous five years.

Miller spoke with Mussina for the first time yesterday morning. Their conversation lasted 30 minutes, and Miller deemed it "a nice talk.

"The one thing I told him is, 'You guys have had a different pitching coach every year. The first thing I plan to do is stop that,' " Miller said.

"One thing that happens when a guy wins 70 percent of his games is that everyone thinks you don't have to bother with him, just leave him alone. That's not true. They need you as much as anyone."

Miller worked with Doug Drabek in Pittsburgh and Jim Palmer during his first stint in Baltimore. He got the lowdown on Mussina from another of his former pitchers -- Flanagan.

"One thing he told me, if you want to get close with Mike, you have to know everything," Miller said. "You have to know what his last start was, what he threw hitters.

"Mike likes people who work hard. He doesn't want to be around people who aren't willing to pay the price like he is."

Flanagan was the pitching coach Mussina most respected, but it's clear that Miller wants to establish a strong working relationship. Mussina seems encouraged by that, and by the addition of Key.

"It's too early to say, but if you go simply by past history, you have to be looking forward to playing for this team," he said.

Mussina went 19-11 with a 4.81 ERA last season, then 0-1 with a 5.26 ERA in the playoffs. His .687 winning percentage looks even better when compared with the Orioles' .429 percentage since he joined the team in 1991.

The Orioles could have signed him to an extension last spring, when Mussina offered them "a discount rate." Instead, they waited, knowing the pitcher was two years away from free agency.

At best, the decision will cost them millions.

At worst, it will cost them their best pitcher.

Mussina earned $4 million last season, and could receive a record award in salary arbitration if his contract negotiations disintegrate.

"I'm a firm believer in security," Mussina said. "Obviously, I would say the more years the better. But to get more years, there has to be a trade-off somewhere. And I want to pitch in Baltimore."

Even at Camden Yards?

"Even at Camden Yards," Mussina said, chuckling. "I'd rather play in a small park that's full every day than a humongous park that has a lot of empty seats."

But the Orioles' first overture -- $10 million for two years, plus a $5 million club option -- was woefully inadequate. Pitchers without Mussina's track record are receiving landmark deals.

Smoltz's career winning percentage is .559, Fernandez's is .556. True, Smoltz is coming off a 24-8 season and another big October. But, as Tellem pointed out, Mussina's overall statistics are better.

The Albert Belle scenario?

"Arnie's always fired up about these things," Mussina said. "What my agent says isn't always what I'm going to say. But that's his job. We'll see. I certainly don't expect it to be any kind of war."

Why should it be? Mussina is the anchor of the staff, and he gained big-game experience last season. Miller and Key are only going to help him. And he's entering the prime of his career.

It's a lot to ask, signing Key and possibly Mike Bordick, then giving extensions to Mussina, Ripken and possibly Anderson. But when it comes to Mussina, what choice do the Orioles have?

Everyone knows the cardinal rule of free agency -- the longer you wait, the more you pay. The Orioles have waited too long on Mussina. They need to face reality, or face the consequences.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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