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For Gillick, it's season for play, not pay O's GM tells Mussina contract talks can wait until after '96 season; Bonilla, Anderson affected; Ace sees cordial deal, not record arbitration


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The agent for Orioles slugger Bobby Bonilla has had cursory discussions with Orioles general manager Pat Gillick about a possible contract extension that would keep Bonilla with the team beyond 1996. The agent, Dennis Gilbert, will talk with Gillick again in two weeks.

Bonilla may have to wait to negotiate, however, if Gillick tells him the same thing he told Mike Mussina: He'd prefer to talk contract after the 1996 season.

Mussina yesterday confirmed a Washington Times report that Gillick told the pitcher and his agent the Orioles won't negotiate a contract extension until after this season. Barring any major change in the Basic Agreement between players and owners, Mussina would be tied to the team through the 1997 season, and would be eligible for arbitration after this season, and for free agency after the '97 season.

Choosing to wait until the off-season, Gillick said, is "not a policy, but it's been my practice that the time to negotiate contracts is from the end of the season to the beginning of spring training. Now is the time to set our sights on getting prepared for this season."

Mussina said: "It would've been nice to get [the contract extension] out of the way, if that's what they intend to do. I'm already under contract for this year, so I'll go out and play ball and we'll talk about it after the season."

Mussina signed a two-year contract early last season, for $2.925 million in 1995 and $4 million in '96. Mussina also wanted a third year, for about $4.5 million, but ultimately the two sides couldn't reach an agreement.

Assuming Gillick waits until after the season to negotiate, he'll be able to factor in whatever Mussina does this year and make sure the right-hander is healthy before adding another big contract to the Orioles' long list of multi-year deals. Seven players are signed beyond 1996, and the '97 option for an eighth player, Kent Mercker, goes into effect if he pitches 180 innings.

The Orioles also will run the risk of facing Mussina in a precedent-setting arbitration case. Last year, the Orioles lost a $4.5 million decision to right-hander Ben McDonald, or about $800,000 less than the $5.3 million awarded to Jack McDowell after the 1994 season, an arbitration record.

Mussina, 27, in all likelihood would go into arbitration with much better credentials than McDonald. He has a 71-30 career mark, his lifetime winning percentage of .703 the highest for any active pitcher, with a 3.22 ERA. McDonald's credentials were a 55-47 record (.539), with a 3.86 ERA.

Negotiating an extension after this season, rather than now, won't affect Mussina's desire to remain with the Orioles for the rest of his career and reach a cordial settlement, the pitcher said. He added, smiling, "My agent might want [to go to arbitration]."

Bonilla, in the last year of a five-year deal he signed with the New York Mets before the 1992 season, will make $4.5 million this year. He just turned 33, and the Orioles may want to see how he performs this year before signing him to another contract.

"I've been through all of this before," Bonilla said. "I've come full circle. I've been traded, I've lost in arbitration twice, I've been a free agent.

"I know how this process works. If I'm on [the Orioles'] agenda, Pat will take care of it. That seems to be the way he works. If I'm not, we'll take it from there. . . . I don't want people in Baltimore to make an issue about whether I stay or not. I want this year to be about trying to win. I want that to be the main focus. They're going to have an opportunity to sign me."

If the Orioles decide to wait until after the season, Bonilla said, "Then I'll hear other offers [from other teams]. Right now, the only team that can talk to me is Baltimore."

The Orioles will have one other major decision to make after this season regarding a core player.

They hold a $4 million option for 1997 on the contract of outfielder Brady Anderson, who will make $3.5 million this season. If they decide they aren't keeping Anderson, they would have to pay a $250,000 buyout. Or, if they want to keep Anderson and reduce his salary, they could take the buyout and negotiate a smaller salary.

But for now, with spring training two weeks old, Gillick would rather concern himself with the 1996 season than worry about 1997 and beyond.

Big Three, big bucks

The Orioles have seven and possibly eight players locked into long-term deals that will keep them under contract beyond the 1996 season -- Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, B. J. Surhoff, Randy Myers, Scott Erickson, Chris Hoiles and Kent Mercker (if he pitches at least 180 innings). But the contracts of three primary players expire after this season:

Player -- Mike Mussina

1996 salary -- $4 million

Comment -- He'll still be tied to the team, but eligible for salary arbitration after this season and for free agency after 1997.

Player -- Bobby Bonilla

1996 salary -- $4.5 million

Comment -- Eligible for free agency after this season, Bonilla says he would like to stay with the Orioles. It's just a question of whether the price is right for the Orioles.

Player -- Brady Anderson

1996 salary -- $3.5 million

Comment -- The Orioles could pick up his $4 million option for 1997, or they could take the buyout of $250,000 and allow him to become a free agent.

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