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Orioles' Reluctance To Spend Putting Them At Disadvantage

January 16, 2014

Imagine you're a kid on Christmas morning. You wake up bright and early and rush downstairs, along with 29 of your friends (OK, it's a big house).

Under the Christmas tree is a smorgasbord of shiny gifts, filling the room. The feeding frenzy is on, as 30 kids tear open their presents. Amid a cacophony of yelps and torn wrapping paper, you hear your friend in the Yankees cap squeal about the three awesome new toys he got. The kid in the Seattle jersey got the bike everyone wanted. Even the Marlins kid is racking up gifts, and he normally spends every Christmas selling off the stuff he already had.

With smiling faces all around you, you drearily look at your haul for the day: a sock. Not even a pair of socks -- just one sock. Oh, you did get one interesting toy from Australia, but you sent it back because you insisted it was broken (even if others didn't quite see it that way). And the only reason you didn't get coal in your stocking is that it would've been too expensive.

For Orioles fans, the analogy is all too familiar. This winter -- as they have during other recent offseasons -- the O's have remained frustratingly inactive on the free-agent market. While many teams have acted decisively to pony up funds for free-agent prizes, the Orioles have thus far held on to their money and have focused most of their attention on lesser-known minor league veterans in an effort to add organizational depth at a bargain-basement price.

As the calendar flipped to the new year, 35 of the top 50 MLB free agents ranked by had found a team, and 20 different teams had signed at least one of them. Two of the Birds' divisional opponents -- the Red Sox and Yankees -- had combined to sign seven of those free agents, while even smaller-market clubs such as the Astros, Padres, Rays, Twins and Athletics had all landed at least one free-agent prize.

The Orioles, meanwhile, hadn't signed any of the top 50 by the end of 2013, and two of their own free agents on that list -- pitcher Scott Feldman and left fielder Nate McLouth -- left the team for better offers elsewhere. And even when the Birds thought they'd landed one of those top 50 free agents, Australia native closer Grant Balfour, they ended up quashing the deal after seeing his physical.

The Birds' struggles on the free-agent market have become a common trend under the current front office regime. Since the Orioles hired Dan Duquette as executive vice president of baseball operations in 2011, the club has shied away from significant MLB free agents (though it has been more active on the international front, inking Japanese League veterans Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada before the 2012 season).

The Orioles' lack of major signings was understandable during the winter of 2011-12. Duquette wasn't hired until Nov. 8, 2011, and he may have needed some time to get acclimated to his surroundings and make necessary organizational changes, such as overhauls of the club's scouting and player development departments.

Even after the 2012 season, the Orioles could have been somewhat forgiven for not making a free-agent splash. The team was coming off a 93-win season and was bringing back nearly the same roster. Duquette might not have wanted to rock the boat too much, even though the team did have some holes.

But now, coming off a 2013 season during which the O's were competitive, but could have used extra help to make a playoff push, there's little excuse for the Birds' failure to spend on free agents. 

The Orioles have a talented nucleus of players, such as Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Chris Tillman, but they need some reinforcements if they want to become a legitimate postseason contender. The Birds ended the season with a need for another big bat and particularly help in the starting rotation, and through the first several months of the offseason, they've done little to nothing to fill those holes.

Granted, some free agents were out of the Orioles' -- and most teams' -- reasonable price range, such as second baseman Robinson Cano, who landed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners. The O's understandably didn't make such a deal, which could have weighed down the team's payroll.

But even lower-tier, less expensive free agents have slipped through the Orioles' fingers. Outfielder Corey Hart, who could've brought power to the lineup, signed with Seattle for one year and $6 million. Edward Mujica, who interested the O's as a possible closer, went to Boston for less than $5 million per year. The Orioles have had opportunities to patch some holes with quality, relatively cheap free agents, but have come up empty as of press time, aside from a two-year, $4.5 million deal for reliever Ryan Webb.

More frustratingly to many fans, the Orioles seemingly aren't even attempting to bid on some of the big names on the market. When prized Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka became available for posting, Duquette steadfastly announced that the O's had no interest in getting involved. 

The Orioles presumably don't think they can keep up in a potential bidding war for Tanaka, but for a team with recent troubles in the starting rotation, it's aggravating to fans that the O's are dismissing Tanaka outright without some semblance of a pursuit.

So, what's the explanation for the Orioles' avoidance of the free-agent market?

It seems unlikely that it's entirely Duquette's idea. When he was general manger of the Red Sox, from 1994-2002, Duquette didn't shy away from spending big money on established stars. One of his most notable signings was an eight-year, $160 million contract for outfielder Manny Ramirez in 2000. Boston also signed pitcher Pedro Martinez to a six-year, $75 million extension in 1997. 

Granted, Duquette likely had more money to work with in Boston than he does in Baltimore; the large-market Red Sox have deeper pockets than most teams. Still, given the way Duquette spent money during his previous general manger stint, for him to now be backing away from nearly every free agent seems out of character.

There's reason to suspect, then, that Orioles ownership is tying Duquette's hands to some extent. 

Most Orioles fans are more than familiar with the controversial tenure of majority owner Peter Angelos, and his apparent hesitance to spend money, while discouraging, isn't all that surprising.

There was once a time when Angelos was willing to dish out money for free agents, but he has become increasingly averse to risk during recent years. The O's haven't made a big splash during free agency since 2003, when they landed high-profile sluggers Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro.

The O's don't have an unlimited payroll, but they do have a few key sources of revenue from which to spend. For one thing, the Birds' TV deal with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network -- which broadcasts both Orioles and Nationals games -- provides an additional influx of funds, which Angelos once predicted would allow the O's to spend more liberally.

During a 2006 interview with PressBox's Stan "The Fan" Charles, Angelos said, "Now that we have [a regional sports network] and we can move forward with it … that is going to get us on a more even plane with Boston and New York, and that was the purpose."

Angelos also said during that interview: "[T]he key to all this, to get off the losing years and so on, is more money invested on the field. And obviously, with that becoming available, that's exactly what we're going to do."

If fans interpreted Angelos' comments to mean the O's would be a bona fide spender during free agency, though, that hasn't materialized during the seven-plus years since. The Orioles' Opening Day payroll in 2013 ranked 15th out of 30 teams at roughly $92 million. This winter, the O's have further cut their payroll, as free-agent second baseman Brian Roberts' $10 million came off the books and closer Jim Johnson (who was projected to make more than $10 million in arbitration) was traded.

In addition to their MASN income, the Orioles -- like every other MLB team -- will be benefiting from a financial boon from the league's new national TV contracts with ESPN, Fox and TBS. All 30 teams will receive an additional $25 million per year from MLB starting in 2014 and stretching to 2021. It's up to each individual team what it wants to do with the extra cash. Some have put the money into on-field improvements. The Orioles, thus far, appear to have made a different choice.

Taking everything into account, it seems as if the Birds should have more money available than they've spent so far. On paper, the Orioles should have the financial means to make competitive offers for high-profile free agents, rather than bowing out of the bidding for nearly every prominent name. Although the O's will be giving raises in salary to their arbitration-eligible players, there's still money they could be aggressively spending elsewhere.

I think Angelos wants to win. But I think he wants to win within his own terms, in a fiscally conservative and risk-averse manner. Perhaps Angelos has become gun-shy about giving away big money after the Orioles signed a couple of high-profile free-agent busts.

The Birds infamously handed tempestuous outfielder Albert Belle a five-year, $65 million contract in 1998, and then Belle was forced into retirement with a degenerative hip condition after two seasons. And pitcher Sidney Ponson, who rejoined the Orioles on a three-year, $22.5 million deal in 2004, didn't finish his contract, either -- the Birds attempted to void it after Ponson was arrested for punching a judge in Aruba. Since then, the Orioles haven't signed a major league free-agent starting pitcher to a multi-year contract.

The Orioles have garnered a reputation as a low-spending, fiscally frugal team, but they must be willing to alter that philosophy when circumstances warrant. The O's are coming off two straight winning seasons, increasing fan interest in the team. They've got an influx of millions of dollars from MASN and from MLB, as well as increased payroll flexibility from expiring contracts.

Now is the time to step up and spend for the good of the team, yet something has held them back.

If the Orioles can't open the checkbook for a team that's on the brink of being a contender, then when will they? And how strongly can fans support the team when the front office seemingly isn't doing the same?

Issue 193: January 2014