(Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE,…)
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."