Orioles rework Mussina offer Deferred money cut, option easier to reach, but pitcher isn't sold


Pushing to complete a multi-year deal with ace pitcher Mike Mussina, the Orioles again upgraded their proposal yesterday, reducing the amount of deferred money they previously had offered.

It appears, however, that the team's latest offer likely will be rejected; already, sources say, Mussina's side is preparing a counterproposal.

The Orioles and Mussina are working under a soft deadline: Mussina, who is entering the final year of his contract, has an arbitration hearing scheduled for Feb. 21 in Tampa, Fla. The sides could continue to negotiate after that date, but with each passing day, Mussina is one day closer to becoming a free agent after this season.

Before yesterday, the Orioles had offered Mussina a three-year deal with a vesting option for a fourth year. The value of the first three years was approximately $20.55 million, with $5.55 million deferred. If Mussina pitched 225 innings in his third year, a $7 million fourth-year option would kick in automatically, $2 million of that deferred.

That offer having been rejected, the Orioles altered several facets of their proposed deal. They eliminated the deferred money in the first year of the contract, meaning that Mussina would receive his entire $6.55 million salary in 1997.

The Orioles also reduced the deferrals to $1.5 million of Mussina's $7 million salary in 1998 and $1.5 million of his $7 million in 1999. They reduced the number of innings required for the vesting option, possibly to 200 innings, which would make it easier for Mussina to qualify for the fourth year.

The Orioles' offer also includes a large buyout in the event they do not assume the option year.

The level of deferred money has been something of a sticking point. But as they did with Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles are pushing for the non-interest bearing deferrals to reduce the levels of financial obligation. Alomar signed a three-year, $18 million deal, but the deferrals push the real value to less than $17 million.

Club counsel Russell Smouse would not confirm or deny any of the specifics. "What I'll say is we feel we've made an extremely fair offer," said Smouse. "It demonstrates how we feel Mike Mussina is a valuable part of this franchise. We're making a sincere effort to get this matter resolved."

Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, also declined to comment on the specifics. "Both sides are trying to get a multi-year deal and I remain hopeful," he said last night. "But even if it doesn't happen right away, it doesn't mean we won't get it done before season's end. Both sides are trying. We're moving toward the goal tremendously."

Asked if the deal would be consummated before the arbitration hearing, Tellem said, "I have no sense on that. My hope is that if need be we can resolve the one year and concentrate further on the multi-year [contract] because that is what everybody wants."

The deal would make Mussina the Orioles' highest-paid player, a distinction he'll probably achieve in any event. Mussina has asked for $7.1 million in arbitration; the Orioles are offering $6.55 million.

According to league sources, Tellem is using the contract of Florida right-hander Alex Fernandez as a basis for his negotiations. Fernandez, a free agent after last season, received a five-year, $35 million deal. Fernandez is 27 years old, Mussina is 28. Fernandez has a 79-63 career record, Mussina is 90-41. Tellem has asked for a five-year deal, and he's likely pushing for the Orioles to guarantee the fourth year of the contract.

Mussina is expected to report to training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tomorrow, with the other pitchers and catchers. New acquisitions Jimmy Key, Mike Bordick and Tom Davey are the first players at camp (Davey is a Rule 5 selection from the Toronto Blue Jays who pitched in Single-A last year).

The team also signed third baseman Scott McClain, who played for Triple-A Rochester in 1996.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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