Mussina signs for one year and out? Arbitration avoided, but Orioles ace likely headed for free agency

Contract worth $6.8 million

Work on longer deal to continue until April 1

February 15, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles ace Mike Mussina signed a contract for one year yesterday. One year, to erase the frustrations of too many hits and homers allowed in 1996. One year, to add more victories to his portfolio before he becomes a free agent. One year, quite possibly his last with the Orioles.

Mussina reached an amicable settlement to avoid an arbitration hearing. His agent and the Orioles agreed to a $6.825 million salary, the midpoint between what Mussina wanted in arbitration, $7.1 million, and what the Orioles offered, $6.55 million.

But despite the polite words uttered by both sides, all indications are that Mussina will become a free agent after this year. The Orioles made what they've termed their last and best offer: three years, $21.55 million, including a $1 million buyout in the event that they don't pick up a $7 million option for a fourth year. (Under the Orioles' proposal, Mussina could've automatically qualified for the option by pitching 210 innings in the third year.)

The Orioles wanted Mussina to defer about $1.5 million of his salary, with no interest, in each of the second, third and fourth years of his contract.

Mussina, on the other hand, wanted a four-year, $29 million deal, all guaranteed, with $250,000 deferred each year, a request that would've placed his annual salary right in line with the five-year, $35 million deal the Florida Marlins gave Alex Fernandez.

As the Orioles and Mussina's agent negotiated the one-year deal yesterday, there were no more discussions about a multi-year deal, and Orioles sources continue to say the team's offer is absolutely final.

Mussina was asked yesterday if he ever seriously considered the proposal. "No," he replied. "I considered it an improvement. I think they're getting a lot closer A couple of things are important to me -- the [number of] years, and present-day value is important to me. That's our position, and it always has been. It's not like we've jumped around."

General manager Pat Gillick said, "I think it was a last offer, I think it was a very fair offer, one that shows we're serious about trying to sign Mike to a multi-year deal."

Mussina said, "I'm still hopeful. We're not yelling at each other. I don't think there's a situation like that going on. If we don't have anything done by the end of spring training, we'll mutually decide not to get anything done. I don't know what's going to happen after that. I couldn't tell you."

The Orioles, Gillick reiterated yesterday, will end all discussions on contracts on April 1, Opening Day. "Once you go into the season, you don't want to talk [about contracts]," Gillick said. "Nothing's etched in stone, but I think when you get into the season, you want to concentrate on the season."

There were days last year when Mussina didn't concentrate well, when he was distracted by one thing or another. He argued with umpires early in the year, and his cool relationship with former pitching coach Pat Dobson seemed a distraction.

It was a frustrating year, Mussina acknowledges, though he declined to discuss specifics. He won 19 games, but when he drove three hours home to Montoursville, Pa., last October, after the New York Yankees eliminated the Orioles in the AL Championship Series, Mussina knew he hadn't pitched to his standards.

For the first time in his career, Mussina gave up more than a hit per inning, surrendering 264 in 243 1/3 innings. He allowed a career-high 31 homers, and his ERA was a career-worst 4.81.

"I was very inconsistent," he said. "I didn't go out and do the things on the field I know I can do and should do. I gave up too many hits, I gave up too many runs. I still pitched my innings, I made all my starts, and that's stuff I'm pleased with. I just didn't pitch the way I want to pitch.

"I was lucky to win 19 games. If I had any more luck, I could've won 22-23 games. If I had won 20 games -- and I won 19 -- it still doesn't change the fact I could've been better."

His season mirrored the Orioles', a quick start, a collapse, maddeningly inconsistent.

"We jumped out the first two weeks, and then we played so poorly for so long," said Mussina. "There were spells in there when it was frustrating to play as poorly as we were. If I had done what I was supposed to do, maybe some of that would've been avoided a little bit."

Mussina's chest is a little broader from weightlifting, and, as always, he's in good condition, from running miles in the cold of another Pennsylvania winter. He has had five months to consider the inevitable adjustments he must make.

"I just can't give up so many hits," he said. "Either I'm throwing the ball in the strike zone too much, or my pitch selection could've been better, or something like that The hitters made adjustments, and I'm going to do that. But it's not going to be that radical. I'm not going to go out and throw left-handed or anything like that."

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