The Orioles officially entered their signing season yesterday by reaching agreement with pitcher Scott Erickson on a five-year, $32 million contract that ensures the core of the team's starting rotation will remain in place at least through 2000.
Erickson's signing concludes six months of stop-and-start negotiations with the innings monster, but it begins a push to address a leftover raft of 12 pending free agents that includes left fielder B. J. Surhoff, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and second baseman Roberto Alomar. The Orioles also plan to reopen Mike Mussina's three-year contract "sooner rather than later," according to an Orioles official. The Orioles plan to extend Mussina's contract at least through 2002 and may also increase his average $6.825 million salary. Mussina is signed through 2000.
The move alleviates an organizational worry about its most vital strength. For Erickson, adamantly indifferent to it all, the matter never represented a crisis.
"I really didn't care. It was not a concern of mine. I've said that a hundred times before because it was true," Erickson said. "But I wanted to stay on a winning team. I'd been in a situation before where I wasn't on a good team. No matter how good you do, it's not fun."
Though the deal is worth $32 million, $900,000 will supplement this season's salary, bringing it to $4.5 million. A $1.25 million signing bonus is also included and is to be paid no later than Dec. 31, 2002.
Holding to custom, the club deferred $1 million per season at no interest. The money will be disbursed in five increments beginning in 2004.
The deal also includes appearance incentives that could provide Erickson another $1.5 million over its term. Erickson will earn $150,000 each year he reaches 220 innings and another $150,000 if he makes 34 starts. The club will defer 50 percent of every incentive for five years. Should he make his first All-Star team, Erickson would receive an additional $25,000.
Asked about the responsibility of raising the stakes to such a degree, assistant general manager Kevin Malone said, "I think it's responsible because it would have been irresponsible to lose him."
Erickson had no qualms about pursuing free agency at season's end but preferred Baltimore because of ownership's commitment to maintaining a strong team.
If he had pursued free agency, Erickson said, "I probably could've made $40 million -- five [years] times $8 million -- and been on a losing team. Location is important, but winning is the main thing."
Erickson's contract includes a limited no-trade clause that prohibits sending him to any of eight mostly small-market teams.
Added Erickson, who arrived in Baltimore via trade from the Minnesota Twins in July 1995: "I want to be where you have better players around you. Here in Baltimore, they've gone the extra mile to get the best team possible, and that makes everybody better. Especially in Minnesota, that wasn't there. Coming over here where Cal [Ripken] was an excellent shortstop and they get Mike Bordick, who's excellent also, that makes a big difference.
"This team is built around winning, and that's the chance you want every time you take the field."
The deal, negotiated by Malone and Erickson's lead agent, Rick Thurman, came together Tuesday morning. Erickson signed off on it that night.
Erickson's contract represents a watershed to an organization previously opposed to giving anything more than three years to any pitcher. However, majority owner Peter Angelos recently jump-started the talks by conceding to the pivotal stipulation.
"It's almost been a standard refrain that you don't sign a pitcher for more than three years," said Angelos, who finalized the agreement with Thurman. "But recently, with the signing of [Pedro] Martinez and others for longer periods, that position has been changing. This is a super-strong guy who keeps himself in superior condition. The customary rule doesn't apply."
Of Mussina's situation, general manager Pat Gillick said: "We consider Mike one of the best pitchers in the American League. )) We've spoken to Mike and after the season we hope to address his contract also. Even though it does have a period of time to run, we felt it was appropriate. He certainly is our No. 1 pitcher, and we certainly want to discuss keeping him in an Orioles uniform past his present contract."
Angelos handed Malone control of the Erickson negotiations three weeks ago, a move that broke a monthlong stalemate that arose when the two sides couldn't agree before Opening Day. At one point, a four-year, $25.5 million deal seemed close.
Thurman called Malone "the glue that kept the deal together. If it hadn't been for him, the deal probably wouldn't have gotten done."
Such a failure, Malone conceded, might have represented a catastrophic loss. Erickson has amassed a 42-26 record in less than three seasons in Baltimore, pitching 222 1/3 innings in 1996 and 221 2/3 innings last year. Erickson has topped 200 innings five times in eight full major-league seasons, giving the Orioles a commodity, durable starting pitching, that is in precious supply.
"You're looking at 230 innings a year, and that's a lot of innings to replace. Scotty's a guy they can count on day in and day out," Gillick said.
"Look who was going to be available as free agents and the front-line guys available in trades," added Malone. "You're just going to have to pay more and get less. There's just not that much quality that you can let this guy go."
The club has notified Mussina of its intent to restructure an extension agreed upon only last May. Negotiations with Surhoff, however, are likely to intensify first.
Mounds of money
Scott Erickson's new contract averages $6.4 million per season. A look at this year's highest-paid pitchers:
Pitcher, team .. .. .. .. Salary
Greg Maddux, Atl. . .. .. $9.6M
Roger Clemens, Tor. .. .. $8.25M
John Smoltz, Atl. . .. .. $7.75M
Pedro Martinez, Bos. . .. $7.5M
Alex Fernandez, Fla. . .. $7.0M
Tom Glavine, Atl. . .. .. $7.0M
David Cone, NYY . . .. .. $6.7M
Mike Mussina, O's . .. .. $6.5M
Randy Johnson, Sea. .. .. $6.0M
John Wetteland, Tex. . .. $5.75M
The breakdown of Scott Erickson's five-year, $32 million contract:
Year .. .. .. .. Salary
1999 .. .. .. .. $6.00 million
2000 .. .. .. .. $6.00 million
2001 .. .. .. .. $6.25 million
2002 .. .. .. .. $5.00 million
2003 .. .. .. .. $6.60 million
Signing bonus* . $2.15 million
*-$900,000 payable now and $1.25 million in 2002
Pub Date: 5/14/98