The Baltimore Orioles have initiated talks with ace pitcher Mike Mussina about a contract extension, which represents--along with improvement in Cal Ripken's back--another positive step for an organization still getting over the Aaron Sele fiasco of two weeks ago.

By initiating discussions with Mussina, whose three-year, $20.45 million contract expires at the end of the 2000 season, the Orioles are getting a head start on trying to prevent their most coveted player from departing via free agency.

The talks "are very preliminary," Mussina, 31, cautioned today. "We're at step one of a process that has a long way to go."

An Orioles source confirmed that the team has opened negotiations with Mussina and that there has been one face-to-face meeting with Mussina's agent, Arn Tellum.

Three years ago, Mussina took less than his market value to remain with the Orioles. In the years since, the market for elite pitching has soared, with Kevin Brown, a pitcher of comparable record, getting a seven-year, $105 million contract from the Dodgers.

"Last time, I felt the team had a real good chance of being a playoff team every year," Mussina said, "so I didn't feel comfortable risking the possibility of leaving and not being able to make that run. I felt more comfortable about getting it done with the Orioles."

This time, Mussina says he is "three years older and three years more experienced," and "more comfortable with the whole process that goes along with being a free agent.

"This situation is different. I love Baltimore. I love playing there. But in the same respect, I owe it to myself to see what other people think is fair. And hopefully the Orioles will be one of those teams who agree with whatever 'fair' means. I've made it clear that given my first choice, I'd like to stay in Baltimore."

Meantime, Ripken, who participated in a fan forum at the Orioles' Fan Fest this weekend in Baltimore, pronounced himself ready for spring training and perhaps even ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, four months after undergoing season-ending back surgery in Cleveland.

Ripken, 39, has been doing baseball-related activities for almost a month, following a month of exercises designed to stabilize his back.

Despite Ripken's seemingly successful rehabilitation, the Orioles plan to work out outfielder-first baseman Jeff Conine at third base during spring training. Earlier in his career, Conine was tried at third base by the Florida Marlins during spring training, but had never appeared there until playing three games at the position for the Orioles last season.

Two major issues remain for the Orioles between now and the opening of their spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 17: the ongoing search for a fifth starting pitcher, and catcher Charles Johnson's arbitration case.

Johnson, who made $3.9 million last season, is asking for $5.1 million, and the Orioles are offering $4.6 million. There have been no negotiations between the two sides, but the relatively small gap means a deal probably can be reached before the hearing, which is scheduled for Feb. 18.

"We're always willing to talk about these things," Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, said today. "We filed a conservative number, a number that was Charles's value."

Orioles Vice President for Baseball Operations Syd Thrift said today Orioles executives plan to meet soon to discuss the case.

Having lost out on Chuck Finley and having seen their agreed-upon four-year, $29 million deal with Sele fizzle over concerns about Sele's arm, the Orioles seem more inclined to conducting an internal competition for the fifth-starter spot during spring training.

Thrift mentioned recent minor league free agent signee Jose Mercedes, organizational products Calvin Maduro and Radhames Dykhoff, left-handed phenom Matt Riley and former Orioles left-hander Doug Johns (currently unsigned) as possibilities.

Thrift has not ruled out a free agent signing, although the market now consists of only leftovers, such as Steve Avery, Donovan Osborne, Kent Mercker, Pat Rapp and Dennis Springer.