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Orioles exploring starting pitching, reserve catching; not hot on closers

With a month left before pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota, Fla., the Orioles continue to search for free-agent pieces in the marketplace and apparently are no longer focusing on a potential closer. Instead, they are pursuing starting pitching while also exploring another backup catcher.

According to multiple sources, the Orioles have made it known that they are comfortable with in-house options at closer and are instead attempting to acquire at least one veteran starting pitcher. They also have been inquiring about reserve catchers despite having four players at the position currently on their 40-man roster.

There are several high-profile veteran starting pitchers still on the free-agent market in mid-January -- Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo to name a few -- likely because coveted Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka has not yet picked a team. Negotiations with Tanaka are expected to end Jan. 24 -- and it will likely remove one well-heeled club from acquiring the other well-regarded free-agent starters.

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, who has said the club is not in the bidding for Tanaka, said he is not sure whether Tanaka’s situation will hamper the Orioles’ pursuit of acquiring a starter before Jan. 24.

“I can’t really handicap that,” Duquette said. “But we are talking to a couple of pitchers.”

Garza, Santana and Jimenez seem to be out of the Orioles’ reach because Duquette and the organization have in the past been reluctant to offer four-year or longer deals to starting pitchers. Santana and Jimenez also have the added complication of being tied to a draft pick -- and the Orioles would prefer hanging on to their 2014 first-round selection, if possible.

Still, if the market were to fall considerably on a member of that trio, the Orioles would like to be in the mix in an attempt to upgrade their current rotation.

Arroyo still seems to make the most sense given his reliability and durability, but the Orioles are vetting whether to guarantee a third year for a pitcher who will turn 37 years old in February -- albeit for one who has never been on the disabled list and has thrown 199 innings or more in each season since 2005.

Since they have seemingly walked away from pursuing a high-priced closer -- such as Fernando Rodney or Grant Balfour, whom they nearly signed but ultimately rejected over potential health concerns -- the Orioles could use that budgeted money on a legitimate starter.

They also are looking to buy a backup to starting catcher Matt Wieters, according to a source. They currently have Steve Clevenger, Johnny Monell and Michael Ohlman on the 40-man roster, but none has extensive time in the major leagues. Clevenger has the most experience with 83 big league games in the past three seasons, including 54 starts behind the plate.

The free-agent catcher list is exceptionally limited, highlighted by veterans such as 33-year-old John Buck, 35-year-old Miguel Olivo and 28-year-old Michael McKenry.

Perhaps the most intriguing is McKenry, who was nontendered by the Pittsburgh Pirates this winter. McKenry has started 146 games as a major league catcher, is the youngest of the group and still has a minor league option remaining. However, he was limited to 41 overall games in 2013 due to a left knee injury that required surgery.

The Orioles likely would have to offer a 40-man roster spot to one of those veteran catchers, but they are currently at 39 with the looming 25-game suspension of reliever Troy Patton, which will become effective at the beginning of the regular season.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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