Orioles pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in Sarasota, Fla., Feb. 13, and the club's starting rotation remains a giant question mark. And now the Birds might have backed themselves into a corner in their attempts to land a significant free-agent starter
Bronson Arroyo reportedly came off the board Feb. 7 by agreeing to a two-year deal with the Diamondbacks, and free agent A.J. Burnett -- a Monkton resident rumored to be hotly pursued by the Orioles -- reportedly has the Birds low on his list because he'd prefer to stay in the National League.
That leaves two prominent free-agent starters still looking for a home: right-handers Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. Either would likely improve the rotation. But both would require the Orioles to surrender their first-round pick in the 2014 amateur draft (No. 17 overall).
The O's, understandably, have been hesitant to give away that pick. But as the team prepares to head to camp with a rotation that -- on paper -- seems to lag behind other American League contenders, is it time for the Birds to bite the bullet and give up the pick for a more immediate upgrade?
It's a tough question. And it shouldn't have come down to this in the first place. There's no excuse for the Orioles spending an entire offseason twiddling their thumbs while several viable starting pitchers landed new homes elsewhere. More than four months after the end of the 2013 season, one could argue that the Birds' current rotation is even more unsettled than it was then. The O's lost starters Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel during free agency and -- as yet -- haven't replaced them.
The Orioles have had their fair share of options. Even if they didn't want to break the bank for Japanese prize Masahiro Tanaka, they could've pursued lower-cost veterans, such as Tim Hudson or Matt Garza. They could've taken a chance on a reclamation project, such as Josh Johnson. Even 40-year-old Bartolo Colon would've represented an upgrade to the Birds' staff. One thing all those pitchers have in common is that signing them wouldn't have cost the Orioles their first-round draft pick.
But here we are in early February, and the Orioles have yet to find a dance partner. Meanwhile, Santana and Jimenez remain unsigned as well, partly because of the draft-pick stigma attached to them. One desperate team and two increasingly desperate pitchers -- on paper, the O's would be a logical landing spot for either Santana or Jimenez. But the Birds might not be willing to sacrifice a potential future asset for present-day gratification.
The simple fact of the matter, though, is that giving up the pick might be the best chance the Orioles have to be a legitimate contender in 2014.
Coming off two winning seasons, the O's seem to have designs on competing for a postseason spot again, but they're going to need help. The roster is largely unimproved from the 2013 squad, which tied for third place in the AL East with 85 wins. As of now, the Orioles have a gaping hole in the rotation and lack a veteran innings eater and stabilizing presence atop the staff. Santana or Jimenez -- although both have their warts -- would be welcome additions.
In fact, the Orioles could take it a step further. If they give up their first-round pick for Santana or Jimenez, at that point they might as well go after veteran designated hitter Kendrys Morales, another player stuck in free-agent purgatory. Morales, like Santana and Jimenez, has remained unsigned because he would cost a team a first-round pick. But if the Orioles have already given up their first rounder, signing Morales would cost them their second-round pick instead. That's an easier pill to swallow, because second-round picks are less likely to reach the majors than first-rounders.
It might seem short-sighted to give up one or two draft picks for short-term gain, but the Orioles might not have a better opportunity. Two of their core players, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, are eligible for free agency in two years, and there are serious questions about whether the Birds will be able to re-sign them. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has one year left on his contract. So if the O's are going to make a move to be a legitimate contender, the 2014-15 window is likely when it needs to happen.
Giving up the draft pick would hurt, no doubt about it. Teams have landed excellent players with the No. 17 pick in the past -- most notably, aces Roy Halladay (picked by the Blue Jays in 1995) and Cole Hamels (Phillies, 2002) -- and there's usually plenty of talent available at that point in the draft. But, on the other hand, a team drafting 17th is unlikely to land a surefire, top-flight prospect, because the most highly touted draftees will mostly be snatched up in the top 10 picks. The No. 17 slot is a bit of a no-man's-land in that sense. A team could end up with a useful player with savvy drafting, but is more likely not to land a future star. And there's a strong chance the Orioles would end up with a player who wouldn't play a significant role in the majors.
So if the Orioles intend to go for it in 2014 in 2015, they should go all in. Punt the draft pick. Grab either Santana or Jimenez -- and while they're at it, grab Morales. Yes, it might hurt the team down the road if it finds itself lacking in minor league depth in a couple of years. But these next two seasons might be best chance the Orioles have of reclaiming a playoff spot.
And maybe, for one of the first times all winter, O's fans will have something to get excited about.