Six years after no-regrets early extension with Adam Jones, Orioles have yet to return to that well

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

More than anything else that has happened with the Orioles this decade, the six-year contract extension that kept center fielder Adam Jones away from the free-agent market in May 2012 heralded a new era for an ascending, playoff-bound team.

That contract, an $85.5 million deal signed six years ago Sunday, comes to an end this season. So, too, in many ways does the generation of Orioles baseball during which it was consummated.

It isn't lost on Jones, 32, that such a dusk has set in, chiefly because so few of the players who made that success happen have had the opportunity to extend their time in an Orioles uniform before club control expired. Most of those who returned after that either re-signed with the club at market price once they hit free agency or moved on elsewhere.

With Jones’ own free agency looming, he's honed his sense of the business behind the game, both in terms of young stars hitting free agency for the first time and what the market has in store for veterans like himself.

He knows that the extension signed in 2012 was right for him at the time, saying he was "like a 2-year-old on a candy rush" on both the day he agreed to it and the day he spoke about it this past week, nearly six years later in Chicago. He knows it's probably not right for the current generation of Orioles All-Stars, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, who become free agents after this year and next, respectively. And he knows there's a vast gulf of unknown driving decisions both with the Orioles and teams around the league.

"I've been around the league, and you see how many teams should have, would have locked their young talent up. But that's not for me to say who should and who shouldn't,” Jones said. “I'm not the GM. I'm a player, but obviously, when you see [Mike] Trout locked up long-term, you wonder why isn't [Bryce] Harper? Why isn't [Manny] Machado? Why isn't [Nolan] Arenado? Why isn't Kris Bryant? But [Anthony] Rizzo is. You wonder those things.

“Now, you look at the new talent on the Cubs. What about [Javier] Báez? Then, you see [Xander] Bogaerts, [Mookie] Betts. Why aren't they? I'm not saying why aren't they, but those are guys who are obviously cornerstones for organizations where teams would say, 'I want to keep you here. I don't want you to go anywhere.' "

There was a time when Jones would have found himself on that list, and the Orioles said that to him. He'd been an All-Star once already, and was pretty much right at his peak when he signed, beginning a run of four straight All-Star appearances and three straight Gold Gloves in 2012.

"For me, it was an opportunity I couldn't let slip away," Jones said. "And the organization, that spring, showed interest in locking me up. And it made sense. We agreed to a great deal. ... I appreciate what the organization did trusting me, that I would represent their organization in a professional manner on and off the field. That was something that was important to me."

Buck Showalter had arrived late in the 2010 season, and Jones went to him to confirm that what the manager was bringing long-term was in line with his own intentions.

He already knew he wanted to keep coming to work alongside Nick Markakis, completing what he called an "unbelievable tandem" in the outfield and ensured he'd be able to show up to work alongside someone as passionate and professional as he was. Markakis himself had taken a similar deal three years earlier. Brian Roberts had extended his Orioles career before hitting the market, too, signing a new deal in 2009.

"[Jones] came over and we sat down and talked, and he wanted to know kind of what my plans were," Showalter said. "He was taking in everything — not just me. He said, 'I've got to make a decision here. I kind of want to know what I'm getting into.' "

It turned out he was getting into a long-term relationship with a manager who believed then and still does now that a team's best players should be as consistent on and off the field as Jones.

Yet, Markakis is one of many whom Jones won with who is now gone. Another wave of the team's homegrown talent is nearing the exit, too, and Jones' was the last extension that kept a homegrown Orioles star from free agency.

Jones said a player needs to be as willing as he was, and the team needs to be serious about getting something done for his situation to have been replicated. Both Jones and Showalter know it's not a matter of the club not spending money. Their Opening Day payrolls since Jones' extension kicked in for 2013 have represented six of the seven highest in team history.

"Ever since I've been here, our ownership has been that way," Showalter said. "That excuse was eliminated a long time ago, along with a lot of other ones."

The team has, among other things, given four-year contracts to free-agent pitchers Ubaldo Jiménez and Alex Cobb, let All-Stars Darren O'Day, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo test free agency before bringing them back at market value, and signed multiyear deals with free agents Andrew Cashner, Yovani Gallardo and others.

Asked what's changed otherwise since he signed, Jones said: "We've given a megadeal. We got Ubaldo four years — it didn't pan out the way I expected, but he sure as hell got us to that damn American League wild-card game with his tremendous second half in '16. So the whole time wasn't great, but that second half of '16 was worth it to me because we got a chance to roll the dice.

"It's a good question. Obviously, I'd like to see some other guys stay here. But the reality of it is, is the reality that we don't know. We don't know the books. We don't know their thought process of the ownership. As players, all we can do is appreciate the opportunity we've got on a given day. … Obviously, we'd want Schoop to return. Obviously, Schoop's the main guy you think of, because he's a year out. You can't get Manny. That's just reality. He has to field all the offers. He has to. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You have to. Schoop, I think is in the same boat, but I think you can get him now. But it ain't going to be easy either, because he's a damn good player."

Each man involved — Jones, Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette made clear that it was a two-way street. The Orioles reached out about a contract extension, and Jones engaged them. It wasn't for show, and both parties wanting to reach a deal is the basis for any agreement.

"I mean, it's vital, right?" Duquette said of the mutual interest. "Adam wanted to be in Baltimore, and we wanted to try to build around him. Given his age, skill, ability and personal qualities, we were able to strike a deal that was reasonable."

Considering Jones' extension came in May of his second-last year of club control, Schoop is at that point now. Projecting what any of these other contracts would look like are difficult, but the Orioles shouldn't be dissuaded by anything that happened with Jones. Over the life of his deal, he's compiled 16.9 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs. Even assuming he hit many of his $6 million in incentives to bring the value of the deal to $91.5 million, that's $5.4 million per win.

It's plenty fair for the Orioles, and Jones has no regrets, though the extension came during the first of two straight All-Star seasons that could have put his value at the highest as he entered the open market. Instead of betting on himself in free agency, he saw no gamble signing with the Orioles.

"That was a deal that worked out for both parties," Duquette said. "That's always the best kind."

Said Jones: "Not one player that I know who has taken an extension before free agency regretted that decision. All of us know that [Jacoby] Ellsbury, [Shin-Soo] Choo, they were the ones in ’13 who got the really big contracts. But not one person who took an early extension regrets it because of the comfort level for themselves, professionally and their families, are high priorities. I think it's worked out for a lot of guys who signed contracts early."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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