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The deliberate, patient approach to Markakis' contract extension

I've never met Andy MacPhail, but I feel comfortable stating that he's likely forgotten more about baseball than I ever knew in the first place. So whatever I write here can, and probably should, be viewed in that context. He was brought in to give the Orioles both stability and credibility, and I think he's managed to do that the past two years. He seems to realize what a Herculean task it is to rebuild the Orioles, and while he tends to play things close to the vest, there seems to be a long-term plan in place.

What I do know about MacPhail, just from observing the way the Orioles conduct their business, is that he's meticulous. And deliberate. And slooooooooow. If he were a financial adviser, he'd be the guy whose portfolio was made up mostly of low-risk, long-term bonds. It's not necessarily that he drags his feet on trades and contract extensions, it's that he labors over every detail, leaving no single stone unturned before giving the go ahead. Often times, like with the Erik Bedard trade, it appears to work in his favor.

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With Nick Markakis, however, I feel like he's tap-dancing around the obvious for no good reason.

In the last two years, Markakis has quietly blossomed into the best right fielder in the American League, and there really isn't much point in debating it. (Vlad Guerrero might be more feared, but Markakis is the better overall player, and his best years are in front of him, not behind him.) Did you know he got on base 283 times in 2008? That was the most in the league, more than league MVP Dustin Pedroia and Indians All-Star Grady Sizemore. He was third in the league in runs created with 123 (a somewhat confusing statistic you can read about here), trailing only Sizemore and Josh Hamilton, and third in on-base percentage. Batting average, home runs and RBIs have become an antiquated way of measuring a player's value. The best compliments you can make about Markakis is that he's pretty darn good at not making outs, and he plays exceptional defense. There isn't much else you can ask from a baseball player.

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It's obvious the Orioles are going to pony up and pay Markakis at some point. But the lack of urgency to lock him up right now (and engender some good will) seems to have no real benefit and it could potentially end up annoying Markakis as he watches his peers (like Evan Longoria) have their pre-arbitration years and arbitration years quickly bought out so they can be rewarded with long-term stability.

While it's true that the Orioles have plenty of leverage right now, the longer the team waits, the more valuable Markakis becomes. Literally, each day that passes is a day his value goes up. Maybe it's by $100, maybe it's $100,000, but the point is, he isn't getting less expensive the longer you wait. This is a stock that's only going to climb in value over the next 10 years. The fact that the two sides say negotiations are moving very slowly suggests, to me, that they are light years apart and that the Orioles haven't yet decided to get realistic about Markakis' value. When Tampa Bay locked in Longoria for six years at $17 million plus a number of option years even though he'd only played six major league games, it suddenly became the smartest deal in baseball.

The player gets financial security and stability, and the team gets a gigantic bargain later in the contract when the player is playing for half of what he's worth on the open market. Fausto Carmona, Robinson Cano and Jake Peavy signed similar deals before they became arbitration eligible. Conventional thinking in baseball has changed. The rules might allow teams to pay their young stars the league minimum, but that doesn't make it wise.   

Markakis got married recently and plans to make his home in Baltimore year-round. Right now is exactly the time in his life when he wants to make certain his family will be taken care of forever. He's not going to starve on half a million a year, but also might not be able to buy that dream house he wants just yet for his family (putting down permanent roots in Baltimore). And while that might seem, to most of us, like an absurd thing to worry about in this economic climate, it might tick off a professional athlete who has already proven he's one of the best in the league. The first $25 million matters a lot more than the next $25 million. If nothing else, it gives him immediate peace of mind and lets him go into spring training without a single distraction.

It makes a lot more sense to commit a huge chunk of money to Markakis and then pray he doesn't suffer some freak injury than it does to throw an even larger amount at A.J. Burnett and wait around until his elbow pops again. (Which will happen, people. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Maybe this kvetching is much ado about nothing. The Orioles are likely going to get something done eventually, probably even before spring training. But MacPhail could probably put it all to rest today by calling Markakis' agent and offering what Markakis would be worth on the open market right now: Between $60 million or $70 million over six years. (Toronto's Alex Rios, who isn't as good as Markakis, got $70 million over seven years.) That might even make the Orioles more attractive to free agents if they knew Markakis would be in the lineup for the foreseeable future. It would be an immediate win-win.

That kind of boldness is just not MacPhail's style, which is fine. It's tough to criticize someone with a proven track record of success. If you put it in terms of fictional mob bosses, maybe MacPhail is like Michael Corleone, laying low and examining all the angles before he makes his move, and I'm arguing for the path of Sonny Corleone, demanding immediate action based on emotion. 

The better approach, though -- the Tony Soprano method of making quick, calculated, decisive decisions (even if you agonize over them after the fact) -- might reflect how the times have changed, both for fictional mob bosses and for baseball general managers.  

Baltimore Sun photo: Gene Sweeney Jr. 

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