Mercedes, Ponson make pitch to O's

Agents for starting pitchers to meet with club this week, hoping to avoid arbitration


January 21, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The agents for Orioles pitchers Jose Mercedes and Sidney Ponson will have discussions with club officials this week that they hope will hasten agreements on contracts for 2001 and prevent arbitration hearings in February.

Mercedes and Ponson were among 63 players in the majors who filed last Monday. Dick Moss, who represents Mercedes, submitted a salary figure of $3.8 million. The Orioles have countered with an offer of $2.75 million. Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, is seeking $2.65 million, while the Orioles are offering $1.9 million.

"I don't want to make any forecast or predictions," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. "But I feel good about everything."

The Orioles and Moss have held conversations about a multi-year contract for Mercedes, 29, who led the club with 14 wins in his first season in the organization.

"He can be a free agent at the end of this year, and I think it makes sense for everybody to be thinking along those lines. That may or may not happen. We'll see how it goes," Moss said.

"He's happy there. Hopefully we'll be able to work out something on a long-term basis."

Mercedes went from being a nonroster invitee to spring training in 2000 to the club's No. 2 or No. 3 starter this summer. His 14-7 record included 11 victories after the All-Star break, the most in the American League, and he joined Chuck McElroy as the only starters on the staff to finish above .500.

Unable to reach the majors in 1999 after having rotator-cuff surgery, Mercedes had three stints in the rotation last season until becoming entrenched with seven shutout innings in the second game of a July 29 doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians. The Orioles attempted to send him to Triple-A Rochester before discovering he was out of options, making his success story that much more improbable.

"The way he was used the first half of the year, Syd Thrift would be the first to tell you that nobody can pitch that way," Moss said.

"Once he got put into the rotation, he came through. He's a very talented pitcher. He had an injury before and had to take a step backward. But he's come forward again. He's a top-notch pitcher."

Manager Mike Hargrove had projected Mercedes as his Opening Day starter before the Orioles signed free agent Pat Hentgen last month. Hentgen most likely will get the assignment.

Having earned $800,000 last season, Mercedes stands to receive a significant raise no matter what transpires in the next month. The amount of money separating the two sides is the sixth-largest among the 63 pending cases.

"The number I put in, I thought was very conservative," said Moss, who beat the Brewers in an arbitration hearing for Mercedes in 1997 after the right-hander went 7-10 with a 3.79 ERA. "I did that on the basis of trying the case rather than negotiating a settlement. I sort of bent over backward and put in a conservative figure."

While Moss maintains contact with the Orioles via telephone, Praver intends to fly into town this week to meet with club officials.

Ponson was 9-13 with a 4.82 ERA in 32 starts. He tied for third in the American League with six complete games and finished fifth with a career-high 222 innings.

A lack of run support over the second half cost Ponson a chance at a winning record - a point that Praver is certain to drive home if taken to arbitration.

The Orioles averaged 2.78 runs for Ponson after the All-Star break. He posted a 3.21 ERA in six September starts, but received only 10 runs while going 2-4. By contrast, the Orioles supported Mercedes with 6.73 runs per nine innings during the season.

Ponson, 24, completed his third full season in the majors, leaving him three short of being eligible for free agency. The Orioles renewed his contract last spring for $400,000, then designated him as their No. 2 starter after losing Scott Erickson to an elbow injury.

Dates and times for each arbitration hearing will be assigned later this week. They'll take place in Phoenix. The Orioles have done well in the past, defeating former catcher Charles Johnson and his high-profile agent, Scott Boras, the past two years, but the process can leave both sides bitter.

That wouldn't do the Orioles any good, considering how much they're counting on Mercedes and Ponson within a rotation that no longer includes Mike Mussina and will be without Erickson for most - if not all - of the season.

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