Movement on youth

Markakis' turn to come, but potential stars get long-term deals

Signing young talent

May 20, 2008|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN REPORTER

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.

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