Having signed third baseman Cal Ripken to a one-year extension the player considered "inevitable," the Orioles now must wait and wonder about their free-agent franchise pitcher, Mike Mussina. Competition begins next weekend.
A complicated mix of market forces, deferred money, geography, loyalty and gamesmanship makes Mussina's whereabouts next spring Baltimore's most compelling drama since "Homicide" closed its Fells Point shop. Mussina said he would like to stay, but not for a cut rate. Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said he still considers Mussina an Oriole, though the club hasn't improved its offer in two months. Words remain cheap. But even talk becomes an expensive commodity in little more than a week.
Major League Baseball stipulates that teams may bid only for their own free agents until after the 15-day filing period expires. But there is no constraint against teams expressing interest in less specific terms and being given the parameters of what a player seeks.
At least 10 teams have communicated a desire to make a bid for Mussina once the market opens Nov. 11, according to a source familiar with Mussina's situation. The group includes a who's who of large-market contenders - both New York franchises, the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Atlanta Braves and Seattle Mariners.
The Orioles and Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, have spoken only briefly since the season ended Oct. 1. Mussina is unsure whether Angelos' most recent bid - a six-year, $72 million offer with $12 million deferred without interest - even remains on the table. Nor does it really matter.
Mussina said he will explore the market before giving the Orioles the chance to counter what he considers his best offer. Having vowed not to commit "economic insanity" to retain any player, majority owner Peter Angelos will then decide if it is feasible to retain the fourth-winningest and highest-percentage pitcher in franchise history.
"I think Mike has made his position very clear to all of us," Thrift said during a Wednesday night conference call. "Until proven otherwise, I still see him as an Oriole."
"There are a lot of factors besides money," Mussina said. "You look at the club, the players, their coaching staff, what situation the organization is in, whether I think they can win and how far away they are from being in a good situation."
The Orioles' attempts to retain players once they enter the free-agent market is not encouraging to those hopeful of Mussina's return. Eric Davis, Arthur Rhodes, Alan Mills, Roberto Alomar and, most painfully, Rafael Palmeiro, have gone elsewhere after failing to sign midseason extensions.
Those who believe Mussina will ultimately return have put much faith in the pitcher's preference to remain near his Montoursville, Pa., farm. Mussina doesn't deny geography will influence his decision, but also reminds it is only one of numerous factors, and possibly only a secondary one.
"It's still a factor. But I won't say it's as large a factor, because I've gotten support from here to do whatever I have to do," Mussina said. "It's still a factor, but not necessarily the deciding one."
Cleveland and Baltimore are nearly equidistant from Montoursville, and the Indians are expected to be one of the most aggressive pursuers of a pitcher who almost single-handedly prevented them from reaching the 1997 World Series. Like many teams with interest, the Indians are bound by the game's escalating salaries. Retaining or signing one free agent likely means doing without another.
The Toronto Blue Jays shook the market last month by signing first baseman Carlos Delgado to a four-year, $68 million package, at least temporarily making him the game's highest-paid player. Delgado had the right to exercise an option in his contract making him a free agent, and the Jays acted quickly to retain him.
Delgado's unprecedented contract will influence position players and pitchers alike. The Indians were particularly stunned by the deal, as they are attempting to retain right fielder Manny Ramirez. Even before Delgado's signing, their five-year, $75 million bid for Ramirez was rejected, at least partly because $30 million was to be deferred without interest.
Mussina cites Delgado's contract as having an "indirect effect" on his posture. "We're not comparing the same thing," he said of a measure between pitcher and position player. "But nonetheless it shows that salaries are still escalating."
Industry executives anticipate bidding will begin beyond the Orioles' latest proposal, then escalate, possibly challenging the seven-year, $105 million package awarded Kevin Brown in 1998 by the Dodgers. Mussina said he does not need to set the market, but will insist on a minimum six-year deal.