Orioles to ease grip on Ponson

Plans for one-year deal would allow pitcher to be free agent after season

Arbitration figures due Friday

Beattie: Other 4 eligibles to get 1-year offers, too

Baseball

January 14, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The Orioles have never been sure what to make of Sidney Ponson's potential, and now they're prepared to make him walk the plank toward free agency.

Ponson could leave as a free agent after this season, and with arbitration figures set to be exchanged Friday, the Orioles plan to negotiate a one-year deal with Ponson, but nothing longer.

"In Sidney's case, we just haven't had a lot of discussions about a multi-year deal with him," Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said last night. "With him, one year just seems to make sense."

Beattie said the Orioles will probably negotiate one-year deals with their other four players eligible for arbitration, as well. That list includes Melvin Mora, B.J. Ryan, Gary Matthews and Jerry Hairston.

But of these five cases, Ponson's is the most compelling because he's the only one eligible for free agency after this season. Players must acquire six years of service time before qualifying for free agency, and Ponson has reached five at age 26.

"I really can't comment on the Orioles' thinking in this matter," said Ponson's agent, Barry Praver. "However, from a historical perspective, one would expect a team to offer a multi-year contract at this juncture to a player they intend to hold onto.

"From our side, Sidney had his best year last season, with an ERA [4.09] almost one run per game lower than his career ERA prior to the season [4.90]. He'll approach this season with the same warrior mentality that he always does."

Ponson is probably headed for another season on the trading block because if the Orioles sign him to a one-year deal, they'll risk losing him at season's end with nothing to show for it. They can re-sign him after the season, but for the first time Ponson will be free to sign with another team. He made $2.65 million last season and will likely receive a significant raise through arbitration. On Friday, the Orioles will submit a figure to the commissioner's office, and so will Praver.

If the two sides can't agree to a deal, an independent arbitrator will hold a hearing and pick one of those two figures to determine Ponson's salary.

Last year, for example, Ponson asked for $2.9 million, the Orioles offered $2.5 million, and they settled before the case reached an arbitrator. The two sides also went through this process before the 2001 season.

Ponson's career has always been one of seemingly limitless promise and limited results.

He went 7-9 last year, but the Orioles went 17-11 in his 28 starts. He had the fourth worst run support among American League starters - 4.09 runs per nine innings pitched.

One factor keeping the Orioles from thinking long-term with Ponson is the shoulder problem that sent him to the disabled list on Aug. 9. Ponson underwent a magnetic resonance imaging that showed a slight tear of his right labrum, or cartilage inside the shoulder socket.

After comparing those MRI results with another image taken in 1999, the Orioles determined it was an old injury. Ponson avoided surgery and finished strong. In four of the five starts he made after coming off the disabled list, he allowed two runs.

"By my estimation," Praver said, "Sidney pitched some of his best games ever after returning from the disabled list."

If Ponson ends up with another one-year deal, he probably won't be alone. Beattie said many of the free agents the Orioles have spoken with have said they'd rather sign a short-term deal with hopes the market will improve by next fall.

By then, Ponson could be headed to another team.

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