Movement on youth

The Baltimore Sun

Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria played in six major league games and received a six-year, $17.5 million contract.

Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis has played two full seasons with the Orioles, hitting a combined .296 with 39 home runs and 174 RBIs before this year and establishing himself as a face of the franchise and a future superstar. In March, the Orioles renewed Markakis' contract for $455,000, which is industry protocol involving most players with fewer than three years' major league service.

But teams throughout the majors have been locking up young players at a dizzying pace, assuming the injury/ineffectiveness risk while saving money in the future. Since Jan. 1, 26 players who were at least two years away from free agency have signed multiyear extensions.

Markakis, hitting .260 with eight home runs and 22 RBIs this season, wasn't one of them.

It has been the signing of Longoria, 22, a highly touted prospect who is hitting .231 with four home runs and 17 RBIs this season, that has sparked debate throughout baseball.

One front-office executive, who asked for anonymity because of the issue's "sensitive nature," called the deal "absurd."

"To give a guy a contract like that who has never done it in the big leagues, that is what I call high-risk," the official said. "This game isn't that easy to predict."

But Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, who has been tying up young players with extensions for years now, disagrees.

"That contract makes sense to me," Shapiro said. "It's very unlikely that he is not going to be a premium player."

Tampa Bay has options that would extend the deal through 2016 and ultimately would be worth $44.5 million. If Longoria, the third overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft, is a bust, the Rays would be on the hook for at least $17.5 million.

For his part, Markakis said he's not concerned about the specifics of other players' deals and he isn't comparing their situations to his.

"It is not my time and place to pay attention to it," Markakis said. "I have other obligations right now: to go out there and play every day. Help this team get better.

"I'd say the only reason it interests me is that I know these guys," he added. "I played with them in the past in the minor leagues. And you are happy for them. You're happy to see them be as successful as they are and get rewarded for it."

Assuming Markakis, 24, continues his upward career trajectory, he'll be rewarded handsomely - and soon. The questions are how much and perhaps eventually by whom.

Once a player completes a third year, the leverage switches from management to the player, who then enters the arbitration process for three offseasons. Top players are in line for big raises, even if they lose in arbitration.

Markakis reaches that plateau at the end of this year and will be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. He'll likely make five to 10 times his 2008 season salary in 2009.

"Clearly, there is a trend in the game ... where clubs are reluctant to have some of their higher-profile talent enter free agency, and they are willing to offer security early on in exchange for that," said Orioles president Andy MacPhail, who doesn't address specific players' contracts. "This is something the Orioles understand and believe is a legitimate option for future course of action."

One of the most intriguing aspects of the recent extension push is that it's being done by teams of all payroll sizes. The New York Yankees signed second baseman Robinson Cano, who had two-plus years of service time, to a four-year, $30 million deal in February. And since January, the Detroit Tigers signed first baseman Miguel Cabrera (eight years, $152.3 million) and center fielder Curtis Granderson (five years, $30 million).

"Each side has something to gain, each side has risks, and you want to determine a share in that to feel good about the deal," Shapiro said. "There are benefits to both sides, regardless of payrolls. The benefits and the risks defined are the same. It's just that the risk tolerance is much higher for the bigger-market teams."

The only tangible risk for the players is that they may leave extra money in future earnings on the table. But because the converse is that they'll become guaranteed millionaires instantaneously, without worrying about career-ending injuries, the lure to sign an extension is great.

That's why Longoria, for one, isn't surprised by the trend.

"I think guys, especially the younger ones, are starting to realize that there are so many, what-ifs in this game and to have that security blanket with money and career, it's a good feeling to have," Longoria said. "You see so many guys who haven't taken long-term contracts and end up regretting it in the long run."

The Orioles and Markakis' agent, Jamie Murphy, haven't had any substantive discussions about a long-term deal. Both expect it to be addressed this winter as the sides prepare for an arbitration hearing.

That fits with MacPhail's management philosophy. Whereas some teams have agreed to long-term deals to avoid the arbitration years, the more economically viable Orioles aren't as concerned about arbitration savings.

If the Orioles extend Markakis or any other of their young players, the purpose would be to take away several free-agent years. Therefore, it's logical MacPhail would wait until Markakis gets closer to 2011 before offering an extension. The danger is that the closer a player gets to free agency, the more likely he is to test those waters.

Markakis, given his talent and age and the Orioles' current rebuilding path, is an intriguing case. His price to forego free agency is rising as others set the market.

The cash-strapped Florida Marlins last week signed franchise shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who has two-plus years of service time and is also 24, to a six-year, $70 million deal. No other young player is probably more talented or more important to his organization than Ramirez, the 2006 Rookie of the Year.

Markakis' value to the Orioles is likely more on par with that of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's to the Washington Nationals. Zimmerman, 23, also has not signed an extended deal.

Another comparison would be the Toronto Blue Jays' Alex Rios, who, like Markakis, is a five-tool right fielder in the American League East. Rios, 27, was a three-plus player when he signed a seven-year, $70 million extension in April. Given the Rios' template, this offseason could loom large for Markakis. But don't expect him to say that.

"For me, in the offseason it's my time to relax and just hang out," he said. "Depending on the year that I have this year, depending on how successful I am, working hard and everything ... the offseason should be pretty easy for me. I can sit back, relax and not have to worry about anything. It's all up to them."

But, like Rios, does he want to stay with his original team through, say, 2014?

"I am not saying I want out or I want to be here," Markakis said. "It definitely would be an honor to stay here long term and help this city win."

And if Markakis signs a long-term deal, he would join the trend.

"Our industry tends to follow trends, in drafting, free agency and contract extensions," Shapiro said. "And then it corrects itself. In time, we'll see whether it was an overreaction or not."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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