Enjoy pitching talent, while O's can afford it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For those who think the Orioles have the best starting rotation in the American League, here's a piece of advice and caution. Enjoy it, if you can, while you can.

It won't be intact very long, certainly not beyond this season. Even Peter Angelos' open checkbook policy has its limits. The bottom line is that the Orioles are approaching the point where they can hardly afford what they already have.

Which raises a poignant question: Will the Orioles be able to retain both Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, the cornerstones of their pitching staff? That would seem to be a necessity, but it promises to be an expensive one.

Mussina reportedly is close to agreeing on a multi-year contract. If it's a three-year deal, it figures to average out at least to the $4.25 million the Orioles are paying Kevin Brown this year. If it goes to five years, the number will increase at least to $5 million.

And it's no accident that Scott Boras, McDonald's agent, is more than content to wait in the wings. He can be expected to use Mussina's contract as a starting point.

The Orioles actually set the standard when they signed Brown, coming off a 7-9 record, as a free agent for the same money he made a year ago.

If you pencil Mussina and McDonald in at the same scale and add the $3 million Sid Fernandez gets this year and next, the total for four-fifths of the starting rotation is almost $16 million.

Add $6 million for Cal Ripken (who has a reopener clause after this season), $5 million for Rafael Palmeiro and an average of $3.5 million each for Chris Hoiles and Brady Anderson and you have a staggering total of $34 million -- for eight players. That's more than triple the entire payrolls for the Montreal Expos and Milwaukee Brewers, two of the best teams money didn't buy.

You can tack on another $3 million if Leo Gomez and Bret Barberie win arbitration cases -- and $2 million if they lose. Split the difference and the Orioles' payroll is $36.5 million -- for only 40 percent of their roster (an average of $3.65 million).

Such extravagance suggests the Orioles' payroll could be perilously close to $50 million, which their recent track record doesn't justify. It's part of the win-at-any-cost philosophy that has endeared Angelos to the fans.

But sooner or later fiscal responsibility has to come into play. Long-term multimillion-dollar contracts can help a team's stability, but they also bring a high degree of risk.

It's one reason the Orioles will need a steady infusion of young talent to fortify the upper 40 percent of their roster.

At the moment, the payroll is drastically out of balance, which almost certainly will lead to some painful decisions in the future.

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