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Ponson isn't sold on O's 1st contract proposal

When the Orioles made their first long-term contract offer to Sidney Ponson on Saturday, he wasn't exactly overwhelmed.

Though sources on both sides of the negotiations were still reluctant to get into specifics yesterday, the offer is believed to be for three years at a base salary of $5 million per season with a club option for a fourth year.

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Ponson said his agent, Barry Praver, likely would respond to the team today.

For now, Ponson said, his future is still very much unsettled.

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"The proposal they made, I didn't like; that's the only thing I can say," Ponson said. "It's one of those things. I'll let Barry talk to them, and I have the final say. We'll just have to wait and see."

Ponson, 26, is eligible for free agency at season's end, and his value seems to rise with each start. He is 13-5 with a 3.67 ERA and entered yesterday ranked second in the American League in victories behind Toronto's Roy Halladay.

Last winter, the Orioles chose not to offer Ponson a long-term contract, signing him to a one-year, $4.25 million deal. So their new proposal would grant him an annual raise of $750,000.

The contract would include performance incentives, but in guaranteed money, Ponson would collect $15 million -- about as much as the Los Angeles Dodgers' Kevin Brown will make this season alone.

"I think this is a serious effort to open the doors to negotiate," Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said. "It's the start of the negotiations. The doors are open, and we need to get feedback from Barry."

Flanagan and Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie know what happened the last time the team had a marquee pitcher walk the plank toward free agency.

In 2000, Mike Mussina kept balking at the team's offers and signed a six-year, $88.5 million deal with the New York Yankees.

Under former vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, the Orioles waited until February 2000 before making Mussina a five-year, $50 million offer.

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In late March, they increased that offer to five years for $60 million, and then the negotiations stalled through the season.

That saga played out much differently than Ponson's has this year. Mussina entered the 2000 season with a 136-66 career record and then got off to an atrocious 1-6 start.

Ponson's career record entering this year was 41-53.

Mussina had posted a winning record for eight consecutive seasons before finishing 2000 at 11-15.

Ponson went 12-12 in 1999 at age 22, but he has never posted a winning record for a season.

Even though Ponson wasn't thrilled with the Orioles' first offer, at one point yesterday he told reporters, "It shows they want me."

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Ponson, who has repeatedly said he wants to stay with the Orioles, said the offer didn't make him want to close the door on the negotiations.

"It's still open," he said. "But still, their proposal -- it wasn't even a proposal, basically. It's just one of those things. I'll just keep playing ball. So far, I'm an Oriole, and we'll just see what happens."

If a deal can't be reached, the Orioles might choose to move Ponson before the July 31 waiver deadline. The Atlanta Braves are one of several teams that have expressed serious interest.

But that doesn't mean the Orioles have left themselves a 10-day window to decide Ponson's future. As Flanagan said, "there's no hard deadline" in these negotiations.

If July 31 passes without a new contract or a trade for Ponson, the Orioles can keep trying to sign him through season's end. Obviously, the closer a player gets to free agency, the harder it is to keep him from exploring the open market.

Ponson can file for free agency after the World Series, and then the Orioles would have a 15-day exclusive negotiating window before other teams could start making offers. By offering him arbitration, the Orioles would receive draft-pick compensation from the team that signs him if he leaves.

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And even then, there's a chance they could keep him.

The Los Angeles Dodgers went through a similar production with hard-throwing right-hander Darren Dreifort after the 2000 season. After deciding not to trade him, they found themselves in a bidding war with the Colorado Rockies before re-signing him to a five-year, $55 million contract.

At the time, Dreifort's career record was 39-45, and by midseason the next year, he blew out his elbow, requiring major reconstructive surgery for the second time in his career.

Ponson would be the youngest pitcher in a free-agent market that is expected to include Kevin Millwood, Bartolo Colon and Greg Maddux.

Last offseason, no pitcher signed a free-agent contract for longer than three years, as teams are having a harder and harder time getting those contracts insured.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, whose own future remains uncertain beyond this season, called the club's offer to Ponson "the first salvo."

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"I'm glad to see the process has started," Hargrove said. "Where it'll go, I don't know, but I'm glad [it] has started."

Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.


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