Now that Nick Markakis is safely locked up through at least the 2014 season, it's only logical for the Orioles - and their fans - to turn their attention to second baseman Brian Roberts, whose contract situation and status with the team has been a dramatic production for the past couple of years.
He's heading into the final year of a three-year contract that would have been longer if Roberts didn't have some doubts two years ago about the direction of the team. The Orioles appeared close to trading him to the Chicago Cubs last winter when they were disposing of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard for nice returns, and they considered an earlier deal with the Atlanta Braves for Adam LaRoche and Marcus Giles that they're pretty happy they didn't make. It is against this backdrop that Orioles president Andy MacPhail must try to convince Roberts that the team has never really wanted to trade him and Roberts must decide whether he wants to stick around to see whether MacPhail's rebuilding program will give him a chance to reach the postseason.
It's possible neither of them really has a better option.
By most accounts, the trade market for Roberts is not anywhere close to what it was a year ago, and the proof is in the fact that a pretty good free-agent second baseman named Orlando Hudson has yet to sign with anyone. Roberts has perhaps a little more game, but is anyone going to give up three or four good prospects for him along with what it would take to re-sign him when there's a suitable free-agent alternative?
The possibility of a decent deal becomes even more problematic when you consider that the Orioles need to get a good middle infielder in return or they'll be left with a gaping hole in their improved defensive alignment (with no minor league option apparent) if they deal him before the season. Which leaves them with two workable options: wait until the midseason trading period and hope a contending team develops a dynamic need for a top-flight leadoff hitter or pony up what it will take to sign him to an extension that keeps him here until the Orioles are in position to compete.
Based on the current market conditions, I believe the Orioles need to make an aggressive attempt to re-sign Roberts during the next three weeks and essentially put the decision entirely in his hands.
The speculation that Roberts has grown weary of losing and would like to play for a contender might be legitimate, but he must also consider what kind of market he will encounter if he plays out his contract this year and becomes a free agent. Chances are he'll get a nice three- or four-year deal, but there's also the possibility the global economy will remain in the tank and the free-agent market will be much softer than it is today. He also needs to weigh the distinct possibility that he is more valuable to the Orioles than he will be to any other team.
The Baltimore Sun reported this week that the club has offered him a three-year deal worth $30 million, which is probably not going to get it done, but it isn't so far off the charts that Roberts should be insulted by it. The Orioles' willingness to compromise with Markakis, combined with the positive things MacPhail said about Roberts at the Markakis news conference Thursday, seem to reflect a desire on the part of the team to get down to business and get him signed.
I don't know what the right number is, but I'm guessing a four-year deal worth about $45 million (with the requisite incentive clauses and options) might get this thing over with and allow the Orioles to head into the pivotal year of MacPhail's rebuilding effort with the fans feeling a lot better about the future of the team. There's plenty more to do the next couple of years if the Orioles are to be truly competitive in the American League East, but it would certainly simplify the situation if they didn't have to worry at all about their up-the-middle defense.
Of course, there is no consensus about what to do with Roberts. There is a school of thought that the Orioles should just get what they can for him and keep building from the bottom up, but Roberts is one of the most popular stars on a team that isn't exactly in the good graces of its fan following right now. The Markakis deal was very well received - if you can conclude anything from the talk-show chatter and Orioles message boards - but the goodwill it generated could soon be canceled out by the continuing uncertainty of a protracted contract dispute with another fan favorite.
Roberts is a much-loved player here, and rightfully so, but that's something he should also consider as he decides what he wants to do with the rest of his career. He might land on a winning team, but there is no guarantee of that, and there is no place where he'll be more appreciated than Baltimore.
The Orioles need him to stay.
The fans don't want him to go.
It shouldn't be this tough.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Fridays and Saturdays.