Mussina contract talks unravel Ace's agent rejects what Orioles call best, final multi-year offer

February 14, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Mike Mussina's negotiations for a long-term deal fell apart yesterday, greatly increasing the chances the Orioles ace pitcher will become a free agent after the 1997 season.

With an arbitration hearing looming next week, Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, and Orioles counsel Russell Smouse will attempt to negotiate a one-year contract today. Yesterday, Tellem flatly rejected what the Orioles are calling their best and final multi-year offer to Mussina.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations, the Orioles offered a three-year deal for $20.55 million, with $3 million of that deferred, with no interest.

Their proposal also included a $7 million option for a fourth year, which would've vested automatically if Mussina pitched 210 innings in the third year of the contract. The Orioles offered to pay Mussina a $1 million buyout in the event they didn't pick up the fourth-year option.

The main point of contention is the Orioles' refusal to guarantee the fourth year of the contract. Tellem's last counterproposal, sources say, was for $7.25 million in each of four years, all guaranteed, with $1 million of the $29 million total deferred. During negotiations, Tellem repeatedly raised the deal signed by Florida right-hander Alex Fernandez as a model: Five years, $35 million.

Based on the Fernandez contract and the three-year, $24.75 ZTC million deal signed by Roger Clemens, Mussina, only 28 and one of the game's best pitchers, could command a huge contract as a free agent, perhaps five years at between $7.5 million and $8 million per season.

Mussina's asking price could be reduced by the fact a handful of other star pitchers, the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson, are eligible for free agency as well and dilute the market.

Either way, it appears that Mussina and the Orioles are entrenched in their talks.

If there isn't a major change in the negotiations and general manager Pat Gillick is steadfast in his decision to end all contract talks by Opening Day, then Mussina will go through the entire season as a potential free agent. It would stand to reason, then, that he would at least test the free-agent market.

But Tellem says Mussina's first choice will always be to remain with the Orioles.

"Mike wants to stay," Tellem said, "and we're going to give the Orioles every chance to keep him. He's theirs to lose. He has strong feelings about the Orioles. Pat and Kevin [Malone, the Orioles' assistant GM] have been very supportive of him, and we're still hopeful we'll get it done."

Probably not, though, unless one side or the other makes a major concession. "We made what we believe is an excellent offer," Smouse said. "There's been a lot of effort by the Orioles to get this done."

Mussina is eligible for arbitration, and his hearing is scheduled for Feb. 21. The Orioles have offered $6.55 million, and Mussina filed for $7.1 million.

The numbers are so close that it seems very likely they'll settle for something near the midpoint of $6.825 million.

"I would hope that we can agree on a one-year deal," said Tellem. "If we couldn't, that would be a sign that we're not going to get a multi-year deal done sometime in the future. I would be tremendously disappointed if we can't agree on something, and I think Mike would be, too."

Either way, Mussina will possess the highest single-season salary in club history. Cal Ripken will earn $6.2 million this year.

Tellem says he'll continue to explore ways to get a multi-year deal done in the weeks to come. "We want to keep open that possibility," he said.

The Orioles have three other starting pitchers likely to return for 1998 (barring trade or injury), in Jimmy Key, Scott Erickson and Rocky Coppinger.

NOTES: Reliever Randy Myers, often late in reporting for spring training so he can continue coaching basketball, is not expected to be among those who report to camp today. There are about a dozen players in camp so far, including outfielder Pete Incaviglia and catcher Chris Hoiles. John Hirschbeck, involved in the Roberto Alomar spitting incident last fall, will umpire an Orioles exhibition March 17 against the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla. That may well be the first time he'll take the field the same day as Alomar since last Sept. 27.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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