SARASOTA, Fla. — It has been a very encouraging spring at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, and there is every reason to believe that the Orioles will have a very entertaining and exciting season. The front office just needs to make sure that everybody arrives at Opening Day with a positive mindset.
That's a tricky business in the the complex world of baseball economics, since you can't please all of the players all of the time, but it would be nice if Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette could figure out a way to make the established players in his clubhouse feel as appreciated as the new guys who have joined the team over the past four weeks.
Obviously, he can't overreact to the fact that rising superstar Manny Machado said it's "disappointing" that the club wasn't willing to jump out of slot to reward him for his terrific first full season. Teams only have a few years to keep a player's salary under control, and every stop on the salary staircase affects the next one. The decision to renew third baseman's base salary with just a tiny raise — and his reaction — was pretty much business as usual.
What's really important, however, is that the Orioles recognize that the way they go about the routine business of getting their players under contract can have an affect on both the short-term and long-term prospects of the team.
Machado will quickly put this year's contract situation behind him, just as right fielder Nick Markakis did and catcher Matt Wieters did when they were renewed in previous years. The club was smart to soften the impact on Machado by giving him a $100,000 bonus for winning the Platinum Glove Award, so it's not like Duquette and ownership are aloof to his feelings.
What the Orioles need to do now is make a quick pivot from a month of free-agent focus to contract extension mode and put the word out that they are ready to talk to any of the key players who are really ready to talk to them about staying in Baltimore for a long time.
Machado sent that message when he said Monday that he'd "love to be an Oriole forever," and it would be wonderful if the Orioles were able to sign him to a long-term deal that dispensed with all the zero-to-three and salary arbitration unpleasantness and locked him up past his first year of free-agent eligibility (2019). But that's not likely to happen any time soon, especially with his return to the starting lineup still uncertain and several more-pressing contract situations looming for the team.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy should be first in that line, since he can become a free agent after this season. Club officials have told him on multiple occasions that they want to get something done this spring, and there have been some preliminary discussions on an extension.
Now, it's time to get serious about it before things linger into the season and the Orioles have to play chicken with the July 31 deadline for making trades without waivers. But Hardy said Tuesday that there has been no contact since a preliminary meeting nearly three weeks ago.
"It makes me wonder,'' Hardy said. "I don't know what's going on, so it makes me think. What are they thinking? It's been 17 days or so, and there's been nothing. I think it's natural to start thinking and wondering what they're thinking."
Hardy wants to stay, and the team wants to keep him. He won't come cheap, but good players only do when you can renew them after their first and second seasons.
In a perfect world, the Orioles also would get things rolling with Wieters and first baseman Chris Davis, who both will become eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, but the best thing they can probably do this spring is make sure they are on the right side of the public and player relations aspect of each situation.
Duquette would only say Tuesday that there is nothing new to report on the contract situation of any of those three players.
"No, not really,'' he said. "We've been focused on putting our team together."
It's unlikely that agent Scott Boras is going to offer the club a hometown discount on either Wieters or Davis, so we'll almost certainly be engaging in trade speculation about both of them next winter. Still, the Orioles need to start talking and make it crystal clear that they are serious about keeping the nucleus of the team together.
None of this will be easy, especially in the wake of their recent free-agent spending spree. The Orioles already have spent $67 million this spring and already have signed center fielder Adam Jones to a huge extension. But tacking three or four years onto Hardy's contract — even if it means adding $13 million or more per year to their future payroll — should be a no-brainer.
That's the cost of doing business, and baseball's salary spiral never sleeps, so the moment is now to get to it.