Orioles center fielder Adam Jones is paying attention to the recent trend in Major League Baseball. He's aware that many teams have locked up their young stars.
Since early November, 23 big-league ballplayers have agreed to contract extensions of four years or longer.
"You see it every day if you watch sports. You hear this guy signed, that guy signed. But that's a personal thing. That's an organizational call," said Jones, who will be a free agent after the 2013 season. "It's not like the player can go up to the team and say, 'Hey, want to sign me?' I think it is an organizational call. If the organization wants you to be part of their future, they make that call."
Whether that call comes for the 26-year-old Jones is probably the Orioles' most intriguing storyline over the next 18 months.
This weekend, while the Orioles were in Anaheim, Calif., playing the Los Angeles Angels, executive vice president Dan Duquette met with Jones' agent, Nez Balelo, who is based primarily out of Los Angeles. Duquette would not go into specifics, suggesting it was nothing more than one of several touching-base sessions he had in California.
"I've met with a number of agents on this trip," Duquette said. "I keep a dialogue going with a number of agents."
Balelo, who attended the Orioles-Angels series, declined comment on the meeting and on Jones' contract situation. Balelo works for CAA, which also represents Orioles' lefty Brian Matusz and infielder Ryan Flaherty.
"My side hasn't come to me, knocking down my phone, calling me, texting me. So that means nothing's in the works," Jones said this weekend. "Honestly, I've told my representatives to only hit me up if something is significant, because I am playing. The season has started."
That sentiment meshes with Duquette's philosophy to eschew negotiations until the offseason.
"I don't like to talk about contracts in-season. I think it is a distraction to everyone and it does a disservice to what the team and the players are trying to accomplish," Duquette said.
Given the Orioles' perennial standing in the American League East cellar and the organization's lack of impact prospects, it makes some sense to move Jones — arguably the Orioles' best trade chip — for younger players, particularly promising pitchers, if an extension can't be reached. The Orioles had preliminary discussions with the pitching-rich Atlanta Braves this offseason regarding Jones, but talks didn't progress.
Dealing a young star who's approaching free agency is what the Orioles did in 2008, when they acquired Jones, pitcher Chris Tillman and three others who are no longer in the organization from the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Erik Bedard.
Trading Jones, however, could be interpreted as another white flag by a disgruntled fan base which, generally speaking, is not interested in rebuilding after 14 consecutive losing seasons.
"We like Adam Jones, he is a good player and he is established with our fans," Duquette said. "And he plays every day. He has unique skills in terms of his capability to play the outfield and throw and also to hit and hit with power."
Those skills, his premium defensive position and his age — he'll be a free agent two months after his 28th birthday — will make him a popular and expensive target if he continues to produce.
So how much will it cost the Orioles to extend Jones, who is making $6.15 million and has one more year of arbitration remaining?
Although that amount is fluid and depends partially on when a deal would get done, a safe bet is that it would be more than the six-year, $66.1-million extension signed by Orioles' right fielder Nick Markakis in 2009 when he was three full seasons from free agency.
It's also highly likely if the Orioles chose to extend Jones he would eclipse the club's single-largest financial deal, a six-year, $72-million contract for free agent shortstop Miguel Tejada before the 2004 season.
A Jones extension could cost the Orioles between $75 and $95 million over six years or around $15 million per season depending on the contract length. That would put him in the "franchise player" stratosphere (Markakis' last guaranteed year, in 2014, is worth $15 million, though he has a $17.5 million team option for 2015).
Last year, Jones reached career-highs in home runs (25), RBIs (83), stolen bases (12) and slugging percentage (.466) and won the Most Valuable Oriole Award. Matt Wieters and Jones are considered the club's two best players. Jones has hit five homers and stolen four bases this season.
But can Jones, a one-time all star and Gold Glove winner, be a franchise player?
"Damn right," Jones says. "That's always what I've wanted to be. My whole entire life I've strived to be the best player on the team."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has seen a maturation and seriousness in the passionate and outspoken Jones over the past two years that makes him believe the center fielder has embraced — and will continue to embrace — a leadership role.
"I think the more he plays the game like he has played it, the more weight his words carry," Showalter said. "Adam has never been a guy bashful about expressing his opinion and more times than not it is the right one. I talked about that to him early on. You say the right things, but now you have the pedigree of playing the game hard every day to back those words up."
So a leader? Yes. A franchise player? Duquette bristles at the phrase.
"People use that term a lot. Frankly, I think way too much, because it takes a lot of good players to have a good ballclub," Duquette said. "But Adam is a good player, our fans like him. He is our most popular player, and we like him, too."
One major league scout points to Jones' lack of plate discipline — he has one walk this season and has never had an on-base percentage higher than .335 as a big-leaguer — and a defensive aggressiveness that occasionally results in misplays as indicators that Jones may never become a truly elite player.
"I like him a lot. He's a very good player. But will he be a great player? I don't know. He's still young, so maybe," said the scout, who requested anonymity because Jones is not in his organization. "But if you're going to give him franchise money, he has to be a great player. Someone will probably pay him like that regardless."
Jones and Balelo have not set deadlines for extension talks, but it's unlikely that they would continue them after next season begins. That close to free agency, it would be foolish for Jones not to see what he could get on the open market.
"If I'm in the same situation next year (without an extension), I am going into my free-agent year. It would be hard to give up that right," Jones said.
Consider that in December 2010, two accomplished outfielders who were older than Jones will be in 2013, hit the baseball lottery: Jayson Werth signed a seven-year, $126-million deal with the Washington Nationals at age 31 and Carl Crawford received a seven-year, $142-million deal with the Boston Red Sox at age 29.
That type of potential windfall surely entices Jones, but so does the possibility of long-term security in a town that the San Diego native has attempted to become a viable part of during the season.
"I think if something were to happen … and I am playing for a different city, I think the (Baltimore) community would lose a lot because I am involved in the city. A lot," Jones said. "If I go to another city, I'm going to give my time and effort to that city, that inner city, that community. But in Baltimore, I've planted more than a seed."
With the possible exception of Markakis and the injured Brian Roberts, no current Oriole has been as engaged in local charity efforts as Jones. He has bonded with MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake and has worked with her and other officials on various youth programs.
"That's stuff I do willingly, not because, 'Oh, I have the carte blanche to do it.' I do it because I genuinely care and I think a lot of the programs in Baltimore would miss out because I am the only African-American on the team, so I'm the only one really doing the work with the African-American community in Baltimore," said Jones, who in 2009 became the first African-American Oriole to make an all-star team since Harold Baines in 1999.
"If I wasn't (in Baltimore), I don't know if a lot of kids would suffer or if they wouldn't care, but I know there are some kids that would miss out on opportunities," Jones said.
Ultimately, Jones said, Duquette will have to decide whether the Orioles are better off with Jones in center field, and owner Peter Angelos will have to decide whether Jones is worth the money. Until an offer is made, Jones said he is just going about his business as a ballplayer.
"You want me to go up to Angelos and say, "Hey, what's up, man? I want to stay here.' I can't do that. I would never do that," Jones said. "But he knows. They know how to reach us. And if they want to make a commitment, they can make it. If they don't, I completely understand. I won't cry about it.
"It's not like it is going to make me stop playing hard for the Orioles. I'm gonna wear that O across my chest just as proudly as I did the day I got traded over here."