Contract waiting game again proving costly In Anderson repeat, O's drag feet on Erickson, losing money or pitcher

Inside the Orioles

May 03, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

On the first anniversary of Mike Mussina's signing a three-year contract extension with the Orioles, majority owner Peter Angelos faces a similar situation with a very different pitcher and, more significantly, a different personality.

The Orioles are in trouble, and it has nothing to do with their late April swoon.

Scott Erickson is one of the Orioles' 13 pending free agents and represents a commodity, durable starting pitching, that will be in precious supply after this season. Already, the three-month stop-and-start pace of negotiations between Angelos and Erickson's lead agent, Rick Thurman, has resulted in an escalated demand for a five-year, $35 million extension.

Curiously, the Orioles have remained slow to rejoin talks, at the very least costing themselves money and, at the most jeopardizing the presence of a pitcher uniquely tailored to Camden Yards.

The pervading feeling within the organization is that talks are in serious trouble. Indeed, Thurman is believed ready to stop negotiations for the rest of the season if no progress is made this week.

"This isn't something that's going to drag through the season," Thurman said this weekend. "Scotty doesn't want this to become a distraction. He just wants to pitch."

Unlike Mussina, Erickson apparently doesn't care where.

Mussina agreed to a three-year, $20.45 million extension grossly below market value. More mercenary, Erickson is seeking the same kind of contract given Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez, lesser pitchers willing to test the market. A West Coast team would be just as attractive to the Stateline, Nev., resident.

Angelos has begun to acknowledge an altered market by agreeing to discuss a five-year framework for Erickson, though general manager Pat Gillick argued against it. "I know what I've got here. I don't want to lose this guy," Angelos insisted.

However, Angelos seems willing to risk the same negotiating approach with Erickson as he has employed in dealings with Mussina, Brady Anderson and another pending free agent, B. J. Surhoff -- players committed to staying in Baltimore, even at a "discount."

"I think negotiating is exactly the same in every area, in every activity," the owner said. "You have to establish that what you say has meaning and that you're not posturing. You don't get frivolous. You don't make the statement that you can't go too much further unless that's true."

In re-signing Anderson and Mussina, Angelos deferred significant money, allowing him to control present-day value and manage his payroll into the next century. Erickson is agreeable to the same structure.

Angelos did well to keep Anderson last December but the negotiations remain instructive. The center fielder would've signed a three-year, $18 million deal last June; the delay brought him a five-year, $31 million deal. Another 220-inning season will only further juice Erickson's value.

Bogged down by tobacco litigation, Angelos returned control of negotiations to assistant general manager Kevin Malone less than two weeks ago. Malone, however, still awaits direction.

"We have a number where we want to go," Angelos said. " When the parties get close to it is when consultation [with ownership] starts."

Erickson and Thurman are less patient. The sides appeared close to a four-year, $25.5 million deal that collapsed immediately before the season. Malone has twice phoned Thurman in the past week to ask for more time; Erickson's representatives consider the club's negotiating style Byzantine.

Similarly, the timing of Erickson's increased salary demand and Mussina's recent stay on the disabled list is hardly coincidental. But that is the game. The Orioles wait. The market changes.

"It's different," Angelos said. "You're buying into something that appears to give you a certain assurance for a certain period. Then it can blow up in your face through no fault of the parties involved. It's a crapshoot, except for the player."

How true. Yet the Orioles are especially vulnerable. Mussina is the only starter signed beyond 1999. Jimmy Key is 37 and also an eligible free agent. Scott Kamieniecki is forever a health question.

If the Orioles prefer to make a run for Kevin Brown or Randy Johnson after this season, their current tack makes sense. If Erickson is the man, now is the time.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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