By Matt Palmer
The Orioles got the Shark of the Caribbean in late 2011, but landed their biggest catches in Asian waters.
Following the signing of Fred Ferreira as executive director of international scouting, the Orioles became an unpredictable player in the foreign free-agent market after years of sitting on the sideline. Dan Duquette, Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations, set the tone for the international market early during his tenure: the Birds would not only sign international players, but they would become a leader in the market as well.
For many of the club's strongest critics, it was a welcome change. For decades, the Orioles barely mattered internationally. That said, during the early stages of the 2012 offseason, it remains to be seen whether they will continue to add to their pitching staff and overall roster through international scouting.
The Birds took an aggressive international approach during the 2011 offseason and signed three pitchers from Asia, while failing to land Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes.
Cespedes signed with the Athletics and had a strong rookie season, which included 82 RBIs and 23 home runs.
One of the Asian signings, Seong-Min Kim, did not work out, because the Orioles didn't follow South Korean protocol when they inked the 17-year-old. The Orioles had to apologize publicly and Major League Baseball didn't approve the contract, which included a $500,000 signing bonus. Interestingly, the Orioles and other major league clubs could have made a move to sign Kim after his contract was nullified, but he remains in Korea.
How the failed signing, which brought scorn and talk of a Korean ban, will impact the team is a matter of conjecture.
The Orioles signed Japanese pitcher and former star Tsuyoshi Wada, but he didn't pitch during a single regular-season game. He had Tommy John surgery on his left throwing elbow and was reinstated on the roster in November. It was never a given what Wada, who will be 32 during the 2013 season, would provide. He has one year left on his deal, with an option for the 2014 season.
The one signing that paid off was Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, who went 12-11 during the regular season with a 4.02 ERA. He was the only pitcher who started the year in the rotation and stayed there all the way through. Chen even won a playoff game against American League East foe New York, giving up eight hits and two runs during Game 2 of the AL Division Series.
Chen was remarkable during pressure situations, but the Birds are going to need Wada's signing to pay dividends in 2013 for the team to continue its Asian efforts.
Some will speculate the odds are strong the Birds will be more of a player domestically during the next few months, specifically with an increased name value following a 93-win season. Already the Orioles have been linked to top-of-the-line free agents such as outfielders Josh Hamilton and Cody Ross, but Duquette appears unlikely to make such splashes.
Injuries have plagued Hamilton, but he is spectacular when he's on the field, one of the league's premier players and hitters. Both Hamilton and Ross can play left field, a position of need. Duquette, though, seems to be building a club with scrappy, lesser-known additions. The Birds claimed light-hitting second baseman Alexi Casilla, for example, off waivers from the Twins in early November.
The Orioles faced one unavoidable truth during the 2012 postseason: They don't have a pitching ace yet. At some point during the not-too-distant future, perhaps right-hander Dylan Bundy, Baltimore's 2011 first-round draft pick, will become that figure. Duquette appears comfortable waiting for the organization's internal talent to grow.
For just how Duquette sees the future, look no further back than early during the 2012 season, when the Birds extended outfielder Adam Jones' contract.
"I don't think the way to build a team is through free agency," he said at the time. "I think the way to build a team is through an organizational approach, where you sign and develop good players and then you keep the best players on your team."
Issue 179: November 2012