Signing ace means dollars, makes sense

June 14, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

If the Orioles aren't smart enough to sign Mike Mussina, they should at least take the logical next step, and try to trade him.

Don't get this wrong - the logical first step is to keep Mussina, and the way to do that is by offering him a six-year extension for at least $80 million.

Mussina, 31, is the one indispensable piece of any rebuilding effort. If owner Peter Angelos doesn't recognize his value, the Orioles should attempt to make a Randy Johnson-type deal, and get three quality young players in return.

The problem, of course, is Mussina's blanket no-trade clause. He already has said there is "no way" he would waive it, and he declined to comment further yesterday.

Nothing, however, would prevent the Orioles from shopping Mussina if it does not appear that they will sign him by the July 31 deadline for completing trades without waivers.

If they arranged a deal, they could approach Mussina about waiving his no-trade protection. The worst that could happen is that Mussina would say no, giving the Orioles a rare public-relations advantage.

"I don't want to discuss that at all," vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said.

Is the issue too sensitive? Or is out of Thrift's hands?

"Nothing is out of my hands," Thrift said. "N-O-T-H-I-N-G."

Good.

Then Thrift can call Mussina's agent today and cut a deal, eliminating the possibility that one of the game's top pitchers will leave as a free agent, with the Orioles receiving only draft picks in return.

For now, negotiations remain at a standstill.

And the Orioles' future is in jeopardy.

For all you need to know about Baltimore's two professional sports teams, compare the Orioles' dawdling with Mussina to the Ravens' apparent eagerness to re-sign a player in a similar contractual position, Jonathan Ogden.

Asked recently about Ogden's desire to become the highest-paid offensive tackle in the NFL, Ravens president David Modell said, "We'll be playing in that arena with them. We're not shying away from that reality."

Mussina won 71 games for the Orioles before Ogden ever joined the Ravens. He isn't asking to be the highest-paid player at his position. But the Orioles' last offer - $60 million over years, including $10 million deferred at no interest - wasn't even market value.

This deal should have been done at least a year ago, maybe before. How can the Orioles expect Mussina's cooperation if they want to trade him in the next six weeks, given the atmosphere they've created?

By now, the Orioles should understand that Mussina is a different kind of cat. He probably wouldn't welcome the disruption of a trade, even if it meant pitching in a pennant race. And he surely wouldn't accept a buyout of his no-trade clause, because money isn't his first consideration.

Thus, the Orioles are in a bind, in more ways than they probably even understand.

Karim Garcia could prove a decent spare outfielder. Alan Mills should help stabilize the bullpen. But the acquisitions of the past two days pale in significance to the major decisions that lie ahead.

The Orioles' direction should be obvious - they should build around their potentially dominant starting rotation while attempting to get younger and faster in the field.`That's a very good conclusion," Thrift said.

Well, that means re-signing Mussina and keeping Scott Erickson, who will gain the right to veto any trade when he attains 10 years of major-league service and five years with the Orioles on July 7.

Erickson would be more likely to be dealt if the Orioles had followed through on their plan to sign Aaron Sele, who is 7-2 with a 3.86 ERA for Seattle. But with Mussina's status uncertain and Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson still developing, the Orioles can't afford to lose Erickson unless they get pitching in return.

Whom, then, should they trade?

Parting with potential free agent Charles Johnson would be foolish with Double-A catcher Jayson Werth batting only .211 entering last night's play. But Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, apparently ranks even higher than Cuban defectors on Angelos' enemies list. So, Johnson could go.

The other two position players with value are left fielder B.J. Surhoff and shortstop Mike Bordick. Both are model players that the Orioles ideally would want to retain, but what if they could be traded for solid young pitchers or middle-of-the diamond players? Thrift surely would be tempted.

Again, it all comes back to Mussina.

If he leaves as a free agent, little else matters.

Maybe the Orioles thought they would get Mussina at a reduced rate if he had an off year - a perverse line of thinking, but not out of the realm considering their apparent reluctance to pay him market value.

Alas, Mussina ranks first in the AL in innings, fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio, fifth in on-base percentage allowed and seventh in ERA. He's 4-6 largely because he pitches for a team with a worse record than the Minnesota Twins.

At this point, it's reasonable to ask why Mussina would even want to remain an Oriole, but players can talk themselves into anything.

The Orioles went from a sub-.500 team in 1995 to AL East champs in '97, didn't they? Mussina might believe they can just as recover as quickly - an argument that would immediately call into question the value of his Stanford education.

Of course, intelligence is relative.

The Orioles will look dumb if they fail to sign Mussina, and even dumber if they lose him as a free agent and receive only draft picks in return.

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