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O's offer Mussina $50 million

Feb. 15, 2000

Five-year proposal short of market value, but shows O's interest; Likely to pursue $14M a year; Orioles ace more open to free agency this time

Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos' initial bid to retain pending free-agent pitcher Mike Mussina is a five-year proposal worth $50 million, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.

While confirming the club's interest in retaining its most productive pitcher of the past decade, the offer is not considered close to the market value that Mussina insisted last month he will pursue if allowed to enter the free-agent market after this season. Mussina is entering the final installment of a three-year, $20.45 million contract signed in May 1997 at less than market value.

The proposal, made earlier this month, suggests Angelos is willing to move more quickly with Mussina than several high-visibility players in recent years. However, the average annual value indicates a significant gap exists between the club and a talent some believe could command the highest annual salary of any pitcher.

The Orioles broke an organizational taboo when they signed Scott Erickson to a five-year, $32 million contract in May 1998. Erickson became the team's first pitcher to sign anything longer than a three-year deal barely one year after Angelos had persuaded Mussina to agree to a shorter deal seven months before the free-agent filing date. Mussina overruled agent Arn Tellem during the negotiations, something he promises will not happen this time.

"Once the season starts I'm going to leave it up to Arn," Mussina said last month. (The pitcher chose not to discuss specifics of the negotiations last night.) "I'm not going to be involved unless he feels we're close enough that there's something to consider."

Mussina, 31, did not give the parameters of what he is seeking; however, he has said he would prefer to complete his career with the Orioles, which would suggest at least a six-year package. A source familiar with Mussina's thinking said the pitcher likely will pursue a deal averaging at least $14 million per season, more than doubling his current salary while bumping him past right fielder Albert Belle ($13 million per) as the team's highest-paid player.

Three years ago, Angelos broke a stalemate with Mussina and his agent by engaging the player over breakfast. Asked if a similar invitation this time must include a place setting for Tellem, Mussina said, "Probably."

"We feel we have a good relationship with Peter," Tellem said last night. "We're not that interested in setting artificial deadlines or getting it done tomorrow. We're just interested in getting a deal Mike is comfortable with and we remain optimistic that that can happen."

Mussina and recent New York Mets acquisition Mike Hampton are considered the most attractive pitchers eligible to enter next winter's market. One industry analyst last month projected a six-year, $72 million offer ($12 million average) as a responsible "baseline" for negotiations for Mussina.

In an assessment of next year's free-agent class, USA Today estimated Mussina's market value at $16 million per season, a figure that would allow Mussina to pass the Los Angeles Dodgers' Kevin Brown as the game's highest-paid pitcher based upon average annual salary.

Angelos' initial offer also includes significant deferred money at no interest -- a staple of long-term contracts previously signed by Belle, Rafael Palmeiro and Mussina, among others.

Mussina previously has said he need not challenge Brown's seven-year, $105 million contract, complete with perks such as corporate jet travel for his family from Georgia to Los Angeles.

At the same time, Mussina no longer appears willing to allow Angelos to use his outspoken preference to finish his career in Baltimore as leverage.

"The last time I was uncomfortable being a free agent. I'm more comfortable dealing with that situation now," Mussina said last month.

A resident of Montoursville, Pa., Mussina was voted runner-up to Pedro Martinez in last season's American League Cy Young Award balloting after going 18-7 with a 3.50 ERA in 31 starts.

His ERA ranked as third-best behind Martinez and David Cone in the American League and eighth-best in the majors. Mussina's season was even more remarkable given the context of a 78-84 season. Mussina completed four starts, made 17 quality starts and enjoyed a dramatic rise in ground-ball ratio, something that allowed him a significantly lower ERA at Camden Yards (3.22) than on the road (3.71).

Though Brown's contract may not represent a target for Mussina, his vital statistics will be used to buttress an argument for a six-year contract. Brown signed his seven-year deal at 34; Mussina does not turn 32 until next December. While the Orioles may rightly argue that Brown's contract was an aberration, Mussina can counter that he has won 84 games compared to Brown's 79 wins the last five seasons.

(Mussina has been backed by an average support of 5.91 runs per nine innings; Brown, pitching mostly in the National League, has received an average 4.36 runs.)

By entering long-range negotiations before the season, the Orioles are showing Mussina interest that was lacking when Palmeiro, Randy Myers, Roberto Alomar, Arthur Rhodes and, now, Charles Johnson were entering the final years of contracts.

The Orioles are committed to about $41.5 million in salaries for the 2001 season -- a figure representing more than half of this year's projected payroll. However, given the Orioles resources, club officials do not believe it a serious obstacle in a potentially landmark negotiation such as this.

"I don't think that's really a huge issue because $41 million is not an overwhelming commitment as far as our structure goes," said chief operating officer Joe Foss.

While the Orioles paid more than $10 million in payroll tax from 1997-99, Major League Baseball has phased out the tax this season. It is unlikely the tax would return until after the next Basic Agreement is negotiated with the players association.

The agreement expires after the 2000 season but has an option that either labor or management may exercise for the 2001 season.


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