Piece by piece, MacPhail keeps putting Orioles back together again

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -The Orioles appear to be dotting the i's on a four-year contract extension for second baseman Brian Roberts, which creates an interesting juxtaposition, because the completed contract immediately will return the favor and tie up a number of loose ends for the organization.

Club president Andy MacPhail laid out a fairly comprehensive list of things he wanted to accomplish when he agreed to the titanic job of salvaging the respectability of the once-proud Orioles franchise, and he has made good on much of that list. He has broadened the talent base of the organization with several major trades, upgraded the player development pipeline, enhanced the team's international presence, and positioned the club for a quick growth spurt that might or might not elevate it into contention with the top teams in the American League East over the next few years.

Still, most everyone agrees the most important move of the offseason was signing right fielder Nick Markakis to a six-year, $66.1 million contract, and the final piece of the offseason puzzle was Roberts, who needed to be signed long-term or traded for more young talent.

Either way, MacPhail would have kept faith with his original blueprint, but locking up Roberts for four more years - an outcome that seems imminent - would do much more than just keep the Orioles moving in the right direction; it would affect the organization at just about every level. Let me count the ways:

Fan relations: : Roberts is one of the most popular Orioles, and his unsettled contract situation has been a constant reminder to fans of the administrative shortcomings of ownership. Signing Markakis and Roberts might - dare I say it - even allow fans to think kindly of Peter Angelos for a moment or two for putting up the more than $100 million necessary to keep the club's two homegrown stars in Baltimore for the foreseeable future.

Community relations: : Nobody has to be reminded of Roberts' contributions to the community. He has been a major supporter of the University of Maryland Hospital for Children.

Player development: : The Orioles do not have a second baseman of the future in the upper levels of their minor league system, and trading Roberts just one year short of his free-agent eligibility probably wouldn't get them anyone certain to replace him as one of the cornerstones of the offensive lineup and the defensive infield. This allows more time to develop a long-range option at the position, while allowing the player development department to focus on other pressing needs.

On the field: : Keeping Roberts for at least four more seasons stabilizes the Orioles' up-the-middle defense. The club is set at shortstop (Cesar Izturis) for the next two seasons and has center fielder Adam Jones under control for at least the next five years. Catcher Gregg Zaun is only signed for one guaranteed year, but the position will soon will be inherited by top prospect Matt Wieters.

In the clubhouse: : The Markakis and Roberts signings send a clear message to the young players in the Orioles' organization that hard work and loyalty will be richly rewarded. The Orioles will still have to start winning at some point, but this kind of signing enhances the credibility of the organization inside and out.

Maybe I'm making this too complicated. The deal locks up one of the top leadoff hitters in baseball and allows manager Dave Trembley to put the same name at the top of the lineup card every day. The impact of that is felt throughout the batting order, which should be fairly productive if Jones takes another step forward and Aubrey Huff can come close to replicating last year's numbers.

It's difficult to say exactly how the club's ability to keep its most popular stars will have an impact at the turnstiles. Whatever attendance boost the Orioles might have gotten from a change in the attitude of disaffected fans might be offset by the drag of the sharp recession that has struck every level of society. The Orioles have seen attendance drop in nine of the past 11 seasons and have to assume it will drop again, but the overall image of the franchise has improved since the arrival of MacPhail and it should improve a little more with the uncertainty about Roberts behind it.

That only goes so far, of course. The progress MacPhail has made has yet to be reflected in the win column and might not be again this season, but Roberts' decision to stay another four years is a signal to the fans that he has confidence things really are going to get better.

That, in itself, might be worth the price.

Listen to Peter Schmuck from spring training on WBAL (1090) every weeknight at 6.

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