If Indians make big pitch, would O's swing Mussina deal?

May 19, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

He is the best reason to watch the Orioles, unbeaten at home, 6-1 on the season, pitching in a must-win situation in nearly every start and coming through nearly every time.

But if the Orioles were going to rebuild by trading veterans for prospects, what player would command more value than their ace right-hander, Mike Mussina?

The answer is no one, and the team that probably is most eager to deal for a No. 1 starter might be the one team that could persuade Mussina to waive his no-trade clause.

The Cleveland Indians.

This isn't to advocate such a move -- Mussina should be an Oriole forever. But the Indians are desperate to win a World Series for owner Dick Jacobs, who intends to sell the club.

What if they loaded up a package?

The question was posed recently by a prominent baseball executive, who argued that the Orioles aren't winning with Mussina and could accelerate their rebuilding process by trading him for top young talent.

ESPN's Peter Gammons also broached the subject in his Boston Globe column Sunday, suggesting that the Indians could target Mussina as they try to win their first World Series since 1948.

"Mussina likely would go to Cleveland, which isn't far from his Montoursville, Pa., home," Gammons wrote. "He is worn down by the circus in Baltimore [oh, was he thrilled to get pulled in Cleveland last week after 105 pitches, only to have his lead blown]. If the Orioles could rebuild with four or five young players, would they listen?"

The answer probably is no -- owner Peter Angelos is committed to winning, and No. 1 starters are in increasingly short supply. Trading Mussina would alienate the Orioles' fan base. Extending his contract beyond 2000 is a more appealing idea.

Money isn't an issue for Angelos, even though he said last week that the Orioles are expected to lose $10 million this season. It's difficult to argue that trading Mussina would be in the team's best interests. And the no-trade clause presents another obstacle.

"We can't trade our starting pitchers," general manager Frank Wren said last night, referring to the no-trade clauses in both Mussina's and Scott Erickson's contracts. "It's kind of a moot point."

In theory, at least.

In reality, the Indians could persuade Mussina to waive his no-trade clause by offering him a Gary Sheffield-type bonus or a contract extension. A team could make the same appeal to Erickson by restructuring his contract.

Mussina, speaking after last night's 5-3 victory over Anaheim, declined to state categorically that he would reject any trade. But he made it clear that he wanted to finish his career in Baltimore.

"I don't want to get out," Mussina said. "I've been here for eight years. I want to win here."

Is he "worn down" by the Orioles' "circus," as Gammons suggested?

Again, his answer was no.

"I don't feel frustrated," Mussina said. "I'm disappointed we're not playing better. And I think I've felt that way before, in other years. We've had similar situations."

What about his extension?

"It's been tossed around, but I think there obviously are more pressing issues," Mussina said.

He is married with two children. He owns homes in Baltimore as well as Montoursville. And he demonstrated his commitment to the Orioles when he signed a three-year, $21 million extension in May, 1997 rather than become a free agent at the end of that season.

Heck, the Orioles might not even be in position to undertake a massive rebuilding project -- Erickson and Albert Belle are signed for four more years, Brady Anderson and Mike Timlin for three, B. J. Surhoff and Delino DeShields for two.

But just for argument's sake, how tempted would they be if the Indians offered them their choice of infielders Richie Sexson, Russ Branyan and Enrique Wilson, catcher Einar Diaz and reliever Paul Shuey?

The Orioles almost certainly would demand young starting pitching in any trade for Mussina, and the Indians would defeat the purpose of the trade by including Bartolo Colon or Jaret Wright. But you get the idea.

And frankly, it might be easier to talk Mussina into the trade than Angelos.

How tough would Mussina's life be playing in front of packed houses at Jacobs Field, for a team that is almost guaranteed to reach the postseason?

How tough would it be when his up-the-middle defense would include catcher Sandy Alomar, second baseman Roberto Alomar, shortstop Omar Vizquel and center fielder Kenny Lofton?

Curt Schilling isn't likely to be traded with the Philadelphia Phillies playing so well. Kevin Appier isn't good enough for what the Indians are trying to accomplish. But with a front three of Mussina, Colon and Wright, the Tribe could rightly dream of unseating the defending world champion Yankees.

Again, it's an idea that would hold far more appeal in Cleveland than in Baltimore, where the Orioles are more likely to entertain offers for potential free agents like Juan Guzman and Arthur Rhodes than players under long-term contract.

Mussina has started half of the Orioles' 14 victories. His ERA drops from 4.68 to 3.33 if you remove his one disastrous outing in Tampa Bay. His .674 winning percentage is the highest among active pitchers with 50 or more decisions.

He should be an Oriole forever.

But the Indians want a No. 1 starter. And the Indians are the one team that could tempt Mussina.

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