Stats point to big bucks for Mussina

On Baseball

December 15, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Agents routinely are guilty of hyperbole, but Mike Mussina's agent is right when he says the right-hander has better statistics than do John Smoltz and Alex Fernandez. If he stays healthy and has a reasonably good 1997 season, Mussina would get more as a free agent than either Smoltz (four years, $31 million) or Fernandez (five years, $35 million).

According to league sources, Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, is asking for a five-year contract worth $7 million to $7.5 million a year.

You know what? Mussina probably can get even more than that, if the current salary insanity continues into the next off-season. Roger Clemens is 34 and has averaged 10 wins during the past four years, and he's getting $24.75 million over three years. Jaime Navarro is a petulant talent who has put together a few good years, and he got $5 million a year over four years.

Suppose Mussina has what is an average year for him in 1997. Suppose he goes 17-11 with an ERA around 4.00. He'll have compiled more than 100 career victories and will be only 28. He may not have a prototype body like Clemens, but Mussina takes care of himself, he's steady and he has averaged seven innings a start during his career.

Sure, there are those in the Orioles' organization who wonder whether he's a big-game pitcher, who will remember how he generally pitched poorly as the team pushed for a playoff spot in September. But the teams that could be bidding for him -- the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians -- won't care about that.

All they'll see are the hard numbers Mussina produces every season, always among the best in the American League. He is into the middle years of what is a Hall of Fame career path, and somebody will be willing to give him $8 million a year. Maybe more.

The Orioles had better be prepared to pay him something close to market value. Or they should trade him, and there are rumblings around the league that they are at least considering the latter.

From the rumor mill is churning this: The Orioles are discussing the pros and cons of swapping Mussina to Cleveland, a team loaded with major-league-ready pitching prospects, such as left-hander Alan Embree and right-hander Bartolo Colon. There is logic in this because Orioles general manager Pat Gillick and Cleveland GM John Hart are close friends and compatible trade partners.

Gillick and Orioles owner Peter Angelos don't seem particularly interested in setting new market ceilings. They've spent plenty of money, but look at their expenditures: B. J. Surhoff signed for $3.7 million over three years, a contract that makes him perhaps the best value in the game; Roberto Alomar, whose average salary of $5.6 million is about half of what Albert Belle is being paid; Jimmy Key will be paid $7.65 million over two years, a modest purchase compared to the deals signed by Fernandez and Navarro. The Orioles won't give Mussina $8 million a year, especially since they have to arrange contracts for two other potential free agents, Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson. The Orioles won't sign all three.

Therefore, the Orioles could trade Mussina to Cleveland for three prospects, keeping their payroll in check and infusing the farm system with badly needed talent (remember, in this era when players can get $55 million, the most valuable players in each organization are youngsters who contribute cheaply -- Rocky Coppinger, 10 wins while making $109,000).

The Indians need a front-line pitcher like Mussina to help them win this year. They've developed a strong franchise but haven't achieved the ultimate goal of winning the World Series, and with Belle gone and Kenny Lofton probably going after next year, their chances are diminishing. (They'll also lose Orel Hershiser, Jack McDowell, Kevin Seitzer and Julio Franco along with Lofton after next season.) The Indians could trade for Mussina and take one last good shot with their remaining nucleus.

Swapping Mussina and replacing him with a rookie would effectively doom the Orioles in 1997, especially with the Toronto Blue Jays rising out of the ashes again and the Yankees and Red Sox remaining competitive. But if the Orioles traded for young talent and put together a package for another established but less expensive pitcher (Philadelphia's Curt Schilling?), they could contend.

But the Orioles need to make this decision in the next two months. Gillick has a policy against negotiating once spring training begins, and if the Orioles don't sign him, Mussina will almost certainly be headed for the free-agent market and his trade value will be diminished.

Schilling is available after he broke off negotiations on a contract extension with the Phillies last week and asked owner Bill Giles for a trade.

Key good news for Hoiles

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