Orioles are entering a jam they can't afford with Mora

The Kickoff

March 15, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. — Port St. Lucie, Fla.-- --It could happen any minute now. The Melvin Mora contract situation could escalate into the kind of test of wills that almost always ends with the player moving on and the team spending several years trying to find an adequate replacement.

Mora is frustrated and disappointed ... and apparently near the end of his patience.

The Orioles are flabbergasted at his asking price - reportedly about $10 million per year for at least three years - and seem unwilling to pay him at the level of baseball's other premier third basemen.

The last thing the Orioles need is another spring training standoff with one of their most popular players, but Mora appears to be close to cutting off negotiations and looking ahead to free agency in November. He apparently tried to do just that a few days ago, but the Orioles asked for additional time to make one more offer.

"I'm the kind of guy who, when I get disappointed and things bother me, I don't want to be distracted like that," Mora said yesterday. "I'm tired of thinking and thinking and thinking about it. Everybody asks me about it. [Miguel] Tejada called me the other day and said, `Aren't you signed yet?'"

Technically, Mora is signed for the 2006 season, but everybody knows the chances of a pending free agent's remaining with the same team after playing out the final year of his contract are pretty slim. Just ask new Toronto Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan - or New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina if you want to pull out the most glaring example in Orioles history.

That's why the Orioles need to end this staredown, even if it means they have to blink first.

Mora wants to stay in Baltimore, and he has done everything in his power - both on and off the field - to make the case that he is the kind of throwback player and organizational asset the Orioles cannot afford to lose.

He made the switch to third base in 2004 and has emerged as one of the most productive players in baseball at that position, winning the Silver Slugger Award in his first year at third and making the American League All-Star team for the second time last year. He also has settled in Fallston and has become a go-to player for the Orioles' community relations department as well as several local charities.

If you want to throw in the fact that he mediated the Tejada mess a couple of months ago, go ahead, but you won't hear Mora using any of his off-field contributions to justify his contract demands.

"People talk about what I do in the community," he said. "What I do in the community is something that comes from my heart. I don't like that [added into the equation]. I met the doctors who helped me with my children, and if I'm able to help with a pediatric charity, I'm going to do that. If that also is going to help the Baltimore Orioles, fine, but I don't try to look at that.

"If I end up with the Milwaukee Brewers or the Yankees or Detroit or Toronto, I'm still going to do that in Baltimore because that's where my kids were born."

The same goes for the role he played in smoothing out the strained relationship between Tejada and the front office.

"What happened with the Tejada situation has nothing to do with my contract," Mora said. "I didn't make the decision for Tejada. He made his own decision. Do I want to play with Tejada for the next four or five years or whatever time he has left here? Yeah, but that's not why you should sign me."

Mora is asking for a lot of money, but he said his performance the past few years supports the rich proposal that agent Lon Babby made to the club. He said his statistics are commensurate with some of the top third basemen in the game, and he's asking for a salary at the lower end of the range that has been established for the position.

"I'm not greedy," he said. "I didn't ask for $60 million. This is about what I've done the last three or four years. You can see the stats for yourself. That's not something I'm making up."

Since becoming the everyday third baseman at the start of the 2004 season, Mora has hit .311 and averaged 27 home runs and 96 RBIs. Those numbers are comparable to Eric Chavez ($11 million per year), Scott Rolen ($11.2 million) and several other highly paid third baseman over the same period. Adrian Beltre, one of the top-paid players at the position who averaged 34 homers and 104 RBIs over the past two seasons is in the second year of a five-year deal with the Seattle Mariners that pays him nearly $13 million.

Every contract dispute is about money, of course, but Mora has attached a lot more to the numbers involved than what they represent on a balance sheet. Money equals value and value equals respect.

"My kids already have their [college] paid," Mora said. "Sometimes, it's not about the money. It's about what I deserve. I want to be cooperative with the team, but I also want my value."

Obviously, every contract situation is different. Mora is several years older than some of the players, but he feels that he can be effective well beyond the three or four seasons currently under discussion.

He may have to wait until after the season to find out exactly what his value is - and that's a risky proposition for a 34-year-old player - but Mora says he is not afraid to test the open market.

"The good thing is, my family is 100 percent behind me," he said. "My wife told me, `Wherever you go, I will go with you. You need to go to someplace where they respect you and know what you've done the last seven years in the big leagues.'

"I just want to give the first option to the Orioles. I would like to lock myself into this organization. But tomorrow if I have to walk away, I will walk away. I'm not afraid to do that."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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