O's stand guarantees a disaster

February 15, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

Mike Mussina wants to stay in Baltimore. He's willing to sign for below market value. And the Orioles still can't reach agreement with him on a long-term deal.

It was one thing when they didn't want Jon Miller to return, and deliberately undermined those negotiations.

This time, they're trying to complete a deal.

And looking even more foolish, if that's possible.

They've got a 28-year-old ace with the highest winning percentage among active major-league pitchers, and they won't guarantee a fourth year on his contract.

Sounds like a small-market stunt.

But no, it's the work of a team that drew 3.6 million fans last season and raised ticket prices for 1997.

The Orioles avoided arbitration with Mussina yesterday by signing him to a one-year, $6.825 million contract -- the biggest salary in club history.

Hold your applause.

If owner Peter Angelos doesn't wake up by Opening Day, Mussina is a goner.

The deadline is quite real -- Mussina is eligible for free agency, and it's club policy to suspend contract talks during the season.

The clock is at six weeks, and ticking.

But the Orioles keep sleeping through alarms.

Mussina offered to sign a multi-year deal at "a discount rate" last spring, and they ignored him. His agent, Arn Tellem, warned of "an Albert Belle scenario" two months ago, and they ignored him, too.

They're blowing this. They're blowing it big-time. And now that they've taken their "final" three-year, $21.55 million proposal off the table, they're jeopardizing all they've accomplished with Angelos as owner.

Mussina is more important than Cal Ripken, more important than Brady Anderson, more important than any Oriole to the club's future performance.

He was going to be easier to sign than Ripken and Anderson, remember?

One can only wonder what's next, with Angelos and club counsel Russell Smouse apparently in control.

The Washington Post, citing unidentified baseball sources, reported yesterday that general manager Pat Gillick is "frustrated" that Angelos and Smouse are deeply involved with the Mussina and Ripken negotiations.

Gillick said the report was "not true."

Angelos declined to comment.

"From our standpoint, we're all in this together," Gillick said. "We're talking about a lot of money. If you're talking about a lot of money, other people should be involved."

Fair enough, but Gillick knows the market better than any attorney.

The Florida Marlins gave Alex Fernandez $35 million for five years. The Toronto Blue Jays gave Roger Clemens $24.5 million for three.

Mussina's .687 career winning percentage is far superior to Fernandez's .556, and he's six years younger than Clemens.

Five years, $40 million?

It's not out of the question.

Yet, Mussina asked the Orioles for four years and $29 million, with $1 million deferred.

That's a potential $11 million sacrifice.

And still the Orioles want to squeeze him.

The club's offer is three years, with an option for a fourth that would vest only if Mussina pitches 210 innings in 1999.

Why won't the Orioles budge?

"We don't want to go too far out on pitchers, that's the whole thing," Gillick said.

But how would the Orioles replace Mussina?

"It would be tough. He's a good pitcher," Gillick said.

No, he's better than good, on a team with an already thin starting rotation.

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson also are eligible for free agency after the season, but Mussina is the youngest of the group, and probably the best investment.

His .687 winning percentage looks even better when compared to the Orioles' .429 percentage since he joined the team in 1991.

The spread with Johnson is nearly as high, but Maddux's .707 winning percentage since joining Atlanta appears less remarkable when compared to the club's .615 percentage.

Mussina not only has pitched for lesser clubs, he has pitched in a smaller ballpark. His only significant injury resulted from a fight. And even in an off-year last season, he won 19 games.

So, where are the Orioles coming from?

They've got a chance to use Mussina as an example for every other player -- our ace signed for below market value; why can't you?

They've got a chance to ensure that no matter what else happens, they'll have Mussina pitching every fifth day into the next century.

Yes, they say they lost money last season.

Yes, their payroll again will be one of the game's highest.

But this isn't where you draw the line.

Whatever your opinion of Angelos, it is undeniable that he has fulfilled his pledge to spend whatever it takes to field a competitive team.

He's on the verge of breaking that pledge.

Doesn't he get it?

He's on the verge of losing Mike Mussina.

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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