Andy MacPhail has put the Orioles, a franchise that has been a baseball backwater for more than a decade, back on the right track in the roughly 18 months that he's had control of player operations. He's nurtured the farm system and jettisoned players who were taking the organization nowhere like Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard.
He's building toward something in Baltimore, much in the same way the Rays laid the groundwork for last season's success years in advance. In short, so far, so good.
The trick now is for MacPhail to keep the good ship Oriole pointed in the right direction by holding onto the players who will be useful when the team can realistically expect to win -- either in 2010 or 2011 and continuing to cut deadweight from the major league roster. To that end, his top priority this offseason is not signing a free agent like Mark Teixeira or A.J. Burnett, but rather signing right fielder Nick Markakis to a long-term contract extension.
Locking him up isn't going to be easy, though, now that negotiations have stalled and won't be revisited until early next year.
Stopping short of calling it an impasse, [agent Jamie] Murphy said Markakis has decided to observe what happens with baseball's current free-agent class before negotiating again. Murphy said he expects talks to pick up in late January when the sides exchange filings for salary arbitration.
"In many respects the talks have been productive, but we've reached a point where we felt it would be beneficial to see how the market develops," Murphy said.
Markakis is a terrific player. He turned 25 just a few weeks ago and is coming off a .306/.406/.491 season, just percentage points from the sabermetric version of a Platonic ideal -- a .300/.400/.500 season. He's by most accounts a plus defender in right field. He's the type of player you build around, and, other than Evan Longoria, he might be the best young position player in the AL East.
A couple of factors could be at the root of Markakis' apparent reluctance to discuss an extension.
He could be waiting to see what kind of commitment the Orioles make to winning this winter. If Burnett and Teixeira come to roost in Camden Yards next season, perhaps he'll be much more open to a long-term deal.
I suspect that the economic downturn is at the center of it all, though. The parties exchanged figures recently, and things went nowhere from there. As the recent arbitration decisions seem to indicate, baseball could be headed for a slump that mirrors the national economy.
Waiting to see how the current free agent market "develops" seems like code for Markakis and the Orioles being miles apart on the finances of the deal to me, a disparity that could be the result of a valuation by Baltimore that accounts for the lousy economy. To take that speculation one step further, if the Orioles are correct about the baseball market deflating this winter, then it might be a lot later than January before the sides work out a deal. Markakis might be better off waiting a whole season for the economy to recover before putting pen to paper.