It would be nice to think the true litmus test that determines whether the Orioles have really turned a competitive corner this season would be a bushelful of victories over the big-money Yankees and Red Sox.
If only it were that simple.
The real test is taking place behind the curtain, where owner Peter Angelos is undoubtedly enjoying his team's recent resurgence and deciding whether he's willing to double down on the two players who have a chance to be the cornerstones of a new era of Orioles baseball.
Center fielder Adam Jones is fast approaching his final season under control of the club, and he appears to have come into his own as a star-quality player. Catcher Matt Wieters will be tied to the team for at least three more years — so his contract situation isn't as pressing — but it's never too early to consider locking up a guy who might be the best all-around catcher in the league, especially when that removes the divisiveness of a series of salary arbitration hearings.
This should be a no-brainer, except that both players will command very large contracts to buy out their free agent eligibility and the Orioles are haunted by a history of questionable long-term signings.
Angelos was once one of baseball's biggest spenders and the Orioles had some of the biggest payrolls in baseball during the mid-to-late 1990s. It wasn't until his ill-fated decision to throw $65 million at free agent Albert Belle that his zest for assembling an expensive All-Star lineup began to wane.
Belle was forced into retirement by a hip injury less than halfway through that five-year deal, and — though much of the remainder of his contract was covered by insurance — the sheer size of the unrealized remainder of the guarantee was enough to convince the Orioles to stop impersonating a large-market franchise.
They did sign All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada to a six-year, $72-million deal in 2003 and made a half-hearted $140-million offer to Mark Teixeira a few years ago, but the Orioles effectively stopped being a major player in the free agent market in the mid-2000s and tried to refocus on player development.
Of course, even after shying away from marquee free agents, they found reason to still be wary of giant contracts, since they also paid dearly to lock up Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts when they were the young cornerstones of a previous youth movement. Roberts has been sidelined most of the past two seasons with back issues and concussion symptoms and Markakis has seen his offensive numbers slide since signing his six-year deal.
So, why should anyone expect the O's to be willing to open the vault for Jones and Wieters? Well, maybe because the team appears to be on the upswing and new baseball operations chief Dan Duquette believes in keeping his best players for the long haul.
"Once the players get established and show that they are going to be dependable contributors to the team, I think that's always a good time to extend the relationship,'' Duquette said on Tuesday. "Some players do that early in their careers and some later. With Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, they are both good players and they have shown they are dependable team members. And they're both very popular."
Jones is the greater priority, of course, since the Orioles will need to sign him relatively soon or see how much they can get for him before his service time clock runs down. Duquette said he would prefer to talk contract in the offseason, but that might not be practical in this case.
The longer the team waits, the more the leverage shifts in favor of Jones, who is off to a terrific start. While he has remained non-committal about his future, he said on Tuesday that the most important factor in his decision to remain (or not) in Baltimore long-term is the direction of the team.
"It's a huge factor," he said. "You play this game to win. Obviously, this game can be fruitful, but there have been great, great players — in all sports — who have never won a championship, and they all say they'd trade it all to win."
That can't sound very positive to beleaguered Orioles fans who haven't witnessed a winning season since 1997, but Jones said that he is very much on board with the program that Buck Showalter has put in place here and insists he values the roots he has put down in Baltimore.
He can say he dollar figure is a secondary consideration, but that just creates something of a Catch-22, since the best way for the Orioles to show Jones that they are on the right track is to show him the money.
Read Peter Schmuck's in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090AM) and at wbal.com.
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