SEATTLE Mike Mussina wants to remain with the Baltimore Orioles, but the pending free agent will base his decision largely on how competitive he feels the club will be in the next few seasons.
This winter Mussina is expected to be the top free agent pitcher. He’s seeking a long-term deal that will average more than $12 million a season, but he says money will not be the only factor in his decision.
“My first choice is, has been and will be to stay in Baltimore and be part of a competitive team here,” said Mussina, who began this season with the third-highest winning percentage in major league history among pitchers with at least 200 decisions. “But it’s safe to say that first and foremost my decision will be based on what direction the team goes, how competitive it looks like they’re going to be.”
The Orioles’ 30-43 mark has them looking to rebuild, and they’re fielding offers for several top players, including pitcher Scott Erickson, catcher Charles Johnson, shortstop Mike Bordick and left fielder B.J. Surhoff.
The Orioles say they want to rebuild by making deals that will allow them to be younger, faster and competitive next year. If that’s the case, it will increase Mussina’s desire to stay in Baltimore. But if the Orioles trade for prospects who need two or three years to develop as the Chicago White Sox did a few years ago, then Mussina will look to leave.
“I’m 31. I’m at the stage of my career where I can’t afford to wait for the team to develop in three or four years,” said Mussina, who has spent his entire career with Baltimore. “I want to be part of a winning team.”
Last year the Orioles made late-season deals that sent Juan Guzman to Cincinnati and Harold Baines to Cleveland for a trio of prospects that, while well regarded, are all in the minor leagues. To pique Mussina’s interest in remaining an Oriole, the club likely will have to land more polished players.
Mussina said the most fun he’s had as a major leaguer were the 1996 and ‘97 seasons when the Orioles went to the playoffs.
“I want to experience that again,” he said.
Like most of the Orioles, he’s baffled by the team’s third straight season of underachieving.
“If I knew why, I would be solving problems bigger than baseball,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent here, but for whatever reason it’s not working.”
For that reason, he understands why the club wants to retool, and he believes the changes needed to make the Orioles a legitimate contender can be made between now and the start of next season.
“It can be done. In ‘95 we were a losing team and the next year we were in the playoffs and the year after that we had the best record in the American League,” Mussina said.
But until the changes are made, he’s taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“Yes, it’s safe to say I’ll be watching the next six weeks [until the July 31 trading deadline] very closely,” Mussina said.
For that reason, he doesn’t expect major progress in contract talks between his agent Chicago-based Arn Tellem and Orioles owner Peter Angelos. The two sides have spoken infrequently since spring training, when Mussina and Tellem rejected opening offers that went as high as five years at $60 million.
“I said then it would be a long process, and nothing has happened to change my mind,” Mussina said. “I don’t anticipate much in the way of movement before the trading deadline.”
Mussina pitches tonight against Boston in the first game of a three-game swing that concludes an 11-day road trip. The Orioles have failed to win any of the first seven games of the trip, stretching their losing streak to a season-high nine.
Given the way Jason Johnson and Erickson, who will start the other two games of this series, have pitched of late, Mussina represents the Orioles’ best chance to eke a win out of the disastrous trip.
The Orioles will avoid facing Red Sox maestro Pedro Martinez and his paltry 1.44 ERA during this series.
For Mussina, this has been a strange season and one that has tested his resolve and tried his patience. Despite throwing only two bad games, he began the year 1-6 thanks mainly to poor run support. The Orioles scored just 27 runs for him in his first 10 starts.
During that start, which he called the toughest stretch of his career, he admitted being lost for solutions and questioning his mechanics.
After some soul-searching he concluded his record had more to do with the run support than anything he was doing, and he went 4-0 in his next six starts, giving up just 14 earned runs in 49 and 1/3 innings.
But that run came to an abrupt end last week in Oakland, where Mussina was pounded for eight runs in just 4 and 2/3 innings.
“It was just one of those bad games that happens in the course of a season,” he said. “Nothing was working. Usually when I’m struggling I still have one pitch I can get to work for me but not that night. If that happens a lot then I’ll start to worry, but that happens so rarely that, while I’m not happy with it, I can live with it being just one of those bad games you’re going to have over the course of the season.”