Mussina negotiations test what price is right

Inside the Orioles

Framework is different from his last signing

August 29, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

DETROIT -- The Orioles and pitcher Mike Mussina are discussing the framework for a long-term contract extension. That's good news. The bad news is that the same could be said at this time last season.

As the Orioles approach a significant winter in which decisions will be made regarding their manager, general manager and clubhouse mix, they now confront the most important contract negotiations of the Peter Angelos era.

Mussina is on the second year of a three-year, $20.45 million contract described by players association chief Donald Fehr as "garden variety" upon its signing and subsequently ripped by union activists such as Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, who had hoped to use Mussina's deal as leverage for his own approaching deal.

Mussina admits he underpriced himself prior to his earlier free agency. He insists he isn't searching for the last dollar this time, either, but that his status, the game's economics and the club's willingness to bend its negotiating rules in the past enter the mix.

"When we did the last deal, I knew when it was up I'd be 31 years old. With the way free agency has gone historically, you have a pretty good idea that the market isn't going down," Mussina said.

With the exception of Mussina in May 1997 and Scott Erickson (five years, $32 million) in May 1998, the Orioles have traditionally waited until deadlines forced their hand.

The tactic cost them heavily with center fielder Brady Anderson, who ended up with a five-year, $31 million deal when he might have signed for three years during the 1997 season.

Revisionist history circulating about the handling of Rafael Palmeiro's talks would impress even the White House spin doctors. Palmeiro gave the Orioles a five-year, $50 million target before the 1998 season, then waited until August for the club to make a "serious" three-year offer.

The Orioles finally offered Palmeiro what he had suggested 10 months before but only after first signing Albert Belle for $13 million per season, and only with significant deferred money.

On the day the Orioles signed Belle, the slugger was assured by general manager Frank Wren that Palmeiro would be signed. Instead, a combination of deferred money, state taxes, his Dallas residence and the Orioles' protracted intransigence pushed Palmeiro to the Texas Rangers, for whom he is making a strong push for American League Most Valuable Player.

Now comes Mussina, the Orioles' premier pitcher of the '90s and a talent whose career will probably extend well into the second half of the approaching decade.

The industry shuddered last December when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105 million contract including chartered plane trips for his family.

Eventually, someone will challenge Brown's contract. Mussina says it won't be him.

"I don't' see myself as a $100 million player," he said. "But I've got to be fair to myself. There are a lot of teams out there and a lot of people who think I'm a pretty good pitcher."

Were it not for the bruised shoulder suffered last Sunday, Mussina would still have a legitimate shot at 20 wins and a distant chance to capture a Cy Young Award.

Some things have changed since Mussina last signed. The Orioles, who then were not embarrassed to project themselves as perennial powers within the American League East, now find themselves tied to numerous long-term contracts while pledging that they will get younger and rely more heavily on organizational talent. "Transition" remains an operative phrase.

"I don't assume they're going out there and signing an All-Star player at every position," Mussina said. "I think they want to keep certain players at certain positions while they bring in some younger players and try to develop them. You'd have a mix of veterans and young guys, which you really haven't had here the past three or four years."

Last season provided a road map of the Orioles' lacking depth at the top of their rotation. As Mussina rehabilitated first from a blister on his pitching hand and then from a line drive that broke his nose and split his head, the rotation broke down. While an innings monster, Erickson has never thrived as staff ace. Sidney Ponson will be 24 in 2001. Matt Riley will be 21.

"If you have a situation where you want to bring up some young players to perform well at this level, I think maintaining that kind of stability is important," Mussina said.

There are precious few legitimate No. 1 starters in the game. Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Brown, Pedro Martinez and Jose Lima represent a tight circle that also includes Mussina, who carried a .667 win percentage into this season. His most negative statistic this year -- taking losses in three consecutive starts on the 247th start of his career -- only provides backing for his status.

The Orioles are committed to retaining Mussina but process is important. The club showed itself willing to bend to Erickson for five years. Given his attachment to the city and the franchise, Mussina will certainly push for at least six years, a place the Orioles have never gone for any player. He is also likely to challenge for $12 million per season, nearly twice the club's existing standard for a pitcher.

"I think over the last couple years I've maintained the level I was at before them," Mussina said. "Before my last contract they said that Alex Fernandez was an aberration and laughed at it. Now they can say Kevin Brown is an aberration. But I can do really well and not be anywhere near what Kevin Brown got."

How close and how happy should become clear soon.

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