O's taking healthy risk in long term

May 14, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Five-year contracts stink.

Give a position player five years, and you proceed at your own risk. Give a pitcher five years, and you'll probably get what you deserve.

That said, Scott Erickson's five-year, $32 million contract extension is not as outlandish as it might seem.

In fact, it could prove a bargain if Erickson stays healthy -- not an unreasonable expectation for a pitcher who has avoided the disabled list since 1994.

Erickson, 30, is a workout fiend, a nutrition freak, a 200-inning horse with a .618 winning percentage since joining the Orioles nearly three years ago.

If ever a pitcher merited a five-year risk, he's the guy.

His new $6.4 million average salary is even less in present-day value when you factor in the $1 million deferred each season.

And the way the market for quality starting pitching keeps rising, that number will seem absurdly low for a No. 2 starter two years from now.

So, owner Peter Angelos has done it again, reaffirming his commitment to winning by keeping an important player for what should be below-market value.

Still, it's worth noting that only a year ago the Orioles were adamant about avoiding such contracts, holding Mike Mussina to a three-year extension.

It's also worth noting that they could have signed Erickson for four years near the end of spring training, but hemmed and hawed and botched the deal.

General manager Pat Gillick, embracing a party line he once firmly opposed, gushed yesterday that Erickson might even be valuable "past 2003."

Maybe, but for all the Orioles have achieved in signing key players long term, their concern in the year 2000 will be exactly the same as it is now:

They'll be too old.

Mussina and Erickson are signed through 2000, and the Orioles also hold an option on Scott Kamieniecki for that season.

Five others -- Mike Bordick, Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson, Jeffrey Hammonds and Armando Benitez -- are either under contract or the Orioles' control.

That's three-fifths of the starting rotation, the left side of the infield, two regular outfielders and a potential closer.

Not bad, but the average age of that group already is 31.

And the New York Yankees are in significantly better position entering the 21st century.

Eleven Yankees are under contract or the club's control through 2000, including three starting pitchers, three core relievers and three-fourths of their infield.

The average age of that group is 28.7 -- and drops to 27.8 if you remove Chili Davis, the Yankees' injured 38-year-old designated hitter.

The difference?

It's in the farm systems.

The Yankees spend lavishly, but they keep developing players like Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada.

The Orioles, in the fourth year of Syd Thrift's reign as farm director, are no better off than they were under the evil Doug Melvin.

So, they had no choice but to keep Erickson, especially with Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson the only prominent free agents available.

"How do you replace Scotty?" manager Ray Miller asked last week. "The only way to replace pitching is internally. Nobody is going to deal any pitching.

"The thought of bringing someone out of Triple-A to pitch 250 innings, be a workhorse that's hard to figure.

"And if you go out on the free-agent market and get some pitcher who has pitched 2,000 innings, you're probably spending the same amount."

Assistant general manager Kevin Malone went even further yesterday, saying the Orioles would have ended up paying "more for less."

The market has indeed changed since the Mussina signing a year ago, and not just because of Pedro Martinez's six-year, $75 million deal with Boston.

Wilson Alvarez got $35 million for five years in Tampa Bay. Darryl Kile got $24 million for three in Colorado.

And the market only figures to keep skyrocketing, with the addition of two expansion teams placing even more of a premium on quality starting pitching.

Where does Erickson figure in this mix?

Well, ESPN Magazine rated him the fourth-best No. 2 starter in the American League, behind Pat Hentgen, Pettitte and Jeff Fas- sero. "He's durable. He pitches on three days' rest. He's got a nice resume," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said. "And he's still getting better. He hasn't reached his peak yet."

How can Erickson improve?

"Sometime in the near future, he'll probably add a quality off-speed pitch," Flanagan said. "And when he does that, it will open up a whole new door for him."

Malone described Erickson as "one of the best workers in all of baseball." Trainer Richie Bancells said he pays special attention to nutrition, too.

"He's probably more up on it than anyone we have around here," Bancells said. "It's nothing weird, nothing exotic, just knowing what the right things are. I've learned some things from him."

Put it all together, and the Orioles could justify five years for Erickson. Then again, what choice did they have?

Their farm system left them no other option.

Their farm system remains a problem.

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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