Mussina would stay, for a price

Pending free agent says O's are 1st choice, if market value is met

Team's direction a factor

Ace cites Yanks' Cone making twice his $6M

January 23, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Only weeks away from opening the 2000 season as a pending free agent, Orioles ace Mike Mussina yesterday reiterated his desire to complete his career with the club but also said he will adopt a more detached and possibly more hard-line stance in negotiations than in 1997, when he allowed majority owner Peter Angelos a home-team discount to re-sign with the franchise.

"I'm pretty sure we're going to do it a little differently. The last time I was uncomfortable being a free agent. I'm more comfortable dealing with that situation now," said Mussina, a five-time All-Star who has since seen the team scrap its moratorium against five-year deals for pitchers and recently offered free agent Aaron Sele $29 million for four years.

Only six wins shy of becoming the third-winningest pitcher in team history, Mussina said he is "more open" to testing the free-agent market but hastened that "my first three choices are to stay in Baltimore." He then listed a number of "ingredients" affecting negotiations, including a sense for the team's direction as well as a more prominent role for his agent, Arn Tellem.

"I think it's going to be a situation where [Tellem] does much, much more of it and I just do what I'm supposed to do and not get concerned about the outcome while I'm playing," Mussina said.

Yesterday's opening of the two-day Orioles FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center included an afternoon forum that permitted fans to question several front office members, including vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. Mussina's pending free agency served as Topic A.

A number of fans stepped forward to ask about the pace of the talks, the possibility of Mussina being traded during the coming season and ownership's stance on pre-empting free agency with a signing. Thrift acknowledged Mussina's significance to the franchise without suggesting a negotiating timetable. As for any trade, Thrift assured the assembly he was aware Mussina's contract includes a blanket no-trade clause.

Mussina signed a three-year, $20.45 million deal on May 3, 1997, five weeks into the Orioles' wire-to-wire AL East championship run. Mussina and Angelos reached the deal only after Mussina overruled Tellem's advice to press for a higher average annual value.

What players association head Don Fehr described as a "garden-variety" contract was lampooned by other agents and players, including Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine.

Mussina admits being "uncomfortable" with his status three years ago. He pushed for an agreement to ensure he would remain in Baltimore as part of a team he thought on the cusp of a sustained championship run.

"The last time we really had a good club. We'd been to the playoffs [in 1996] and I felt we had the club to get into the Series. Plus I felt there were guys who were going to be around for a few more years," he said. "I thought this might be my best chance here, so let's stick with it. I really wanted to see if we could make a run. It hasn't worked out that way."

Market forces also have risen dramatically during that time, cresting in Kevin Brown's seven-year, $105 million contract with Los Angeles in December 1998.

"That was a situation where you were talking about $2 million or $3 million" over the course of the contract, said Mussina, a native of Montoursville, Pa., a four-hour drive from Baltimore. "This is a situation where you're talking about a lot more than that. Did it play against me last time? Possibly. But are things going to play against me this time? I don't think so. I think I've earned the right to be considered one of the best pitchers in the league."

Mussina, 31, placed second in Cy Young Award balloting last season after crafting an 18-7 record and 3.50 ERA in 31 starts. Only an August shoulder injury deprived Mussina of a run at his first 20-win season.

In the past three seasons, Mussina is 46-25, has pitched 12 complete games and 634 1/3 innings and three times carried a no-hitter through at least seven innings. During the 1997 American League Championship Series, Mussina gave one of the most dominant postseason performances ever, though without receiving a win.

An industry source suggested last week a six-year, $72 million framework might serve as a responsible "baseline" for negotiations. The deal would be the richest in franchise history and represent its first contract of more than five years.

Mussina, who has maintained since last summer that his next deal need not match Brown's, cites the one-year, $12 million contract awarded David Cone by the New York Yankees two months ago as a more telling barometer. With a history of arm and shoulder problems, Cone likely will fill a de facto fifth starter's role with the two-time defending world champions next season while earning nearly twice Mussina's salary.

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