Risky business

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- --The Orioles didn't do anything untoward here, certainly nothing other teams haven't done. They took advantage of a system that in most ways benefits the players and not management.

Even so, the Orioles are playing a dangerous game by unilaterally renewing outfielder Nick Markakis' contract. It's well within their purview because he is a "zero-to-three" player, meaning he has fewer than three years of major league service and won't be eligible for arbitration until this winter.

Markakis will make $455,000 this year, up from $400,000, an impressive chunk of change for a 24-year-old kid. It is $65,000 more than the league minimum and believed to be the largest salary in team history given to a "zero-to-three" player under the club's conventional salary structure. Regardless of what Markakis makes for 2008, he is practically assured millions once arbitration begins, so no one should be crying poverty.

"It is pretty clear in our collective bargaining agreement that the club has leverage in the first two years and 140 days of their career," Orioles president Andy MacPhail said. "And after that, the hammer swings over to the player's side."

Now step away from reality and into the multimillion-dollar world of professional baseball players. Markakis is not only the Orioles' primary hope for the future. He is also their best player of the present - and should be treated as such.

Because of a glaring lack of a supporting cast, he is probably more important to this rebuilding club than any other player younger than 25 is to any other team.

Yet Markakis makes less money than the majority of his teammates. His good buddy and contemporary, pitcher Adam Loewen, will get $816,000 in 2008. Markakis, who batted .300 with 23 homers and 112 RBIs in 2007, would have liked a little more than that.

However, Loewen and Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie ($775,000 in 2008) each signed a major league deal with a signing bonus spread out over several years when they were drafted. That affects their annual salaries, which consequently are not subject to the structure determined by the club.

"We have a salary structure, and we have a couple players that fall outside of it based on their amateur signing bonuses," MacPhail said. "I think that's one of the issues Nick had, but you have to be consistent."

There were no negotiations in determining Markakis' 2008 salary. There was a gap of about $360,000, and neither side felt the other would offer wiggle room.

Markakis isn't chirping publicly about the perceived inequity, the way the Philadelphia Phillies' Cole Hamels or the Milwaukee Brewers' Prince Fielder did under similar circumstances. Those close to him, however, say Markakis was angered by the end result and, in his understated way, he said it.

"That's just how the Orioles feel," he said. "I don't have much of a choice. I'm just going to have to deal with it."

It's a tough spot for the Orioles. Give Markakis more money and set a precedent for other, less talented players while potentially boosting his bottom line in arbitration.

The alternative is having an unhappy Markakis. One who feels disrespected. And bitterness festers - that's been an Orioles specialty over the years.

MacPhail said he's not concerned this decision will endanger the club's relationship with Markakis.

"I don't think so. It's just one of those things that we deal with. It's like a club losing an arbitration case," MacPhail said. "It is the system, and different parties have leverage at different stages of the process. The club has latitude at this stage, and that shifts fairly dramatically starting next year in Nick's case."

Next offseason is key for Markakis and the Orioles. MacPhail doesn't like to talk long-term extensions until a player is facing arbitration - an understandable policy because a player is still contractually obligated to a team for three more years, yet the club is uncertain as to how much those years might cost.

Even if he doesn't sign long term, Markakis is here until at least 2011.

Yesterday, he said he'd still embrace the opportunity to be the long-term face of the organization - assuming he was content with the overall situation.

"Absolutely. I think it would be something I would look forward to being," Markakis said. "It would be an honor to be looked at like that."

That's the good news. The bad news is that this is how the breakdown always seemed to happen with past Orioles stars. Something routine goes badly - or is perceived that way. Trust, loyalty, or whatever you want to call it begins to erode, and eventually, the sides part ways.

Of course, a significant offer to Markakis next winter could wipe away any hurt feelings. The club should have plenty of cash, and that has a way of soothing all ills.

One thing this organization can't afford is alienating its best player.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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