O's risk error by not signing Mussina now

November 30, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

The free-agent class of 2000, that's all anyone in major-league baseball is talking about. Will the Detroit Tigers sign Juan Gonzalez? Will the Cleveland Indians keep Manny Ramirez? Will the Seattle Mariners trade Ken Griffey?

The Orioles weren't part of the initial frenzy in which Gonzalez and Shawn Green were traded within a span of six days, but with Mike Mussina entering the final year of his contract, they face perhaps the biggest Y2K crisis of all.

The good news is, owner Peter Angelos already has made it clear in talks with Mussina and his agent, Arn Tellem, that he wants to re-sign the ace right-hander.

The bad news is, it might already be too late.

The Orioles should have extended Mussina's contract a year ago, after the first season of his three-year, $21 million agreement that was below market from the start, and a steal compared with subsequent deals signed by Pedro Martinez and Kevin Brown.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were criticized for signing Brown to a seven-year, $105 million contract last December, but does anyone still consider Martinez's six-year, $75 million deal excessive? The enduring lesson of the free-agent era is that one year's aberration is the next year's norm.

If Mussina becomes a free agent next fall, Brown's contract might be only the starting point. Griffey, Alex Rodriguez and Ramirez all figure to exceed Brown's $15 million average salary. Mussina, the top pitcher available, could easily join them, giving the Orioles two players (Mussina and Albert Belle) earning approximately $30 million.

"It's always been proven that the longer you wait, the more beneficial it is for a player," Mussina said yesterday from his home in Montoursville, Pa. "This is just another example. Even this off-season -- with [David] Cone out there, [Chuck] Finley out there, the contract Shawn Green already got -- the longer it goes on, it can't hurt me."

Just consider Finley. As of Nov. 17, he was seeking $26 million for three years, according to the Los Angeles Times. But as of yesterday, his price had risen to $36 million for three, according to the New York Post -- an increase of $10 million in 13 days, during which time Finley celebrated his 37th birthday!

Now, let's say the veteran left-hander "settles" for $30 million, an average of $10 million a season. Mussina, who turns 31 next month, is six years younger with a far superior record. His .673 winning percentage is the highest in major-league history among right-handers with at least 200 career decisions.

Brown, 34, owns a .592 winning percentage. His career ERA is lower than Mussina's (3.27-3.50), but that's partly because he spent the past four years in the National League. Brown's ERA in the NL is 2.50. His ERA in the AL was 3.78.

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Mussina has yet to produce a 20-win season or earn a Cy Young Award, but he has had four seasons of 18 or more wins -- one more than Brown. His postseason ERA is more than a run lower (2.53-3.61), though he has made four fewer starts.

The evidence is clear -- Mussina is better than Brown. And with legitimate aces in such short supply, it's equally clear that the Orioles can ill afford to lose him, even with Scott Erickson signed through 2003 and Sidney Ponson and Matt Riley possessing the ability to become No. 1 starters.

So, what should the Orioles do?

Well, they can start by offering Mussina the Brown contract -- seven years, $105 million. That still might not meet his ultimate market value as a free agent. But even though Mussina said in August that he didn't see himself as a $100 million player, he probably can now.

He doesn't need to rush this, that's for sure.

"I haven't really set any timetable," Mussina said. "Obviously, if we get it done before spring training, that's great. If it drags into spring training, then maybe it does. I haven't really considered if it went into the season what I would do. I haven't thought about that yet.

"I'm not agonizing over the fact that this is my last season under contract," Mussina said. "I'm not sitting around saying, `We've got to get it done. We've got to get it done.' I think I'm more patient now, at almost 31, than I was three years ago."

Would he accept below-market value again to stay in Baltimore?

"The market is extremely different now," Mussina said. "I'm not even sure we know what the market is. You've got Kevin Brown way up at the top of the scale, then quite a bit of space down to the next guy as far as pitchers go. However it turns out, I'm sure I'll be pleased with it."

Will the Orioles' recent pattern of upheaval figure into his decision?

"I'm kind of used to it," said Mussina, who will be playing for his fifth manager next season and possibly his sixth pitching coach in seven years. "If I was with a club that had the same people all the time, and then made a change, that would probably bother me. But I'm used to it. If we don't change something every year, it seems like kind of a strange year."

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