In most years, baseball's winter meetings mark the unofficial starting line of the annual offseason spending spree on free agents. But as the Orioles arrive at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort this week, pay day for several high-priced free agents has already come and gone.
Meanwhile, the Orioles front-office members arrived in Florida on Sunday coming off a week in which they dealt 50-save closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for unproven infielder Jemile Weeks and a projected $10-million of payroll relief. The team also watched as former Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth and right-handed starter Scott Feldman, two of the team's top offseason targets, signed elsewhere.
Still, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said Sunday evening that the club will stick to its original mission of trying to get better through high-value acquisitions. So far, those acquisitions have been unheralded, the likes of Francisco Peguero, Cord Phelps and Ryan Webb.
"The job really hasn't changed," Duquette said Sunday, speaking to reporters in the club's suite. "We still have to build our pitching staff and have good defenders in the field. … Our work is really still the same. We're going to continue to build and add value to the team where we see it, the trade market, the signing market. We're going to sign a few more players."
Duquette said that one of his main priorities this week at the meetings will be to acquire a left-handed hitter who can help fill the void in left field while also contributing as a designated hitter. He said that will more likely come via trade than free agency.
"There are some possibilities," Duquette said. "We do have some trade partners we need to connect with in the first couple of days down here. It's possible to address that need through trade. We really need to explore that, but there are still a couple of hitters on the market who could fit on our ballclub."
While he didn't shut the door on re-signing career Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, Duquette said he is pleased with his options at the position, especially Ryan Flaherty, who he said provided solid defense and improved offense in the second half. Combine Flaherty with switch-hitters Weeks and Phelps, and Duquette said he has several capable options. Top position player prospect Jonathan Schoop also could contribute, but Duquette said he could benefit from more seasoning in the minors.
Ultimately, the chief need is to upgrade the club's pitching in both the rotation and bullpen. The Orioles would like an additional starter, and they now must fill Johnson's void at closer. But it doesn't appear that the Orioles are going to participate in a spending spree to attain a high-priced starter or closer, especially with the free-agent market suddenly so rich.
"That market moved pretty quickly because there's a lot more teams chasing fewer pitchers," Duquette said. "I've gotta tell you, Scott Feldman [who signed with the Astros for three years and $30 million] got a terrific contract. Last year, he signed for $6 million and he got five times that this time around. … It's a robust market for the starting pitchers. Frankly, I think we have a little more starting pitching depth this year than we've had the last couple years. We have some qualified starters on the team, and we have some young pitchers in the minors ready and available to help our starting pitching."
Still, Duquette said he has issued offers to some free-agent pitching targets, both starters and relievers.
Duquette expressed confidence that the team can sign a new closer for much less than the $10 million that Johnson was projected to earn, which will help to reallocate the remaining cash to fill other needs.
“There's a lot of pitchers who are closers on the market,” Duquette said. “I think that some of them will sign for significantly less than $10 million a year.”
But he emphasized that the club's success will hinge on improving internally. He mentioned Chris Tillman's breakout year, as well as solid seasons by Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez. He pointed to emerging young pitchers like Kevin Gausman and T.J. McFarland, and hiring coaches like new pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti to help them take the next step. Prospects Mike Wright, Tim Berry and Eduardo Rodriguez are also on the horizon.
"If we're going to be successful, we're going to have to develop additional starting pitchers to come up through our farm system to make an impact on the major league team," Duquette sad. "That's where the Orioles are going to get value from their pitching. It's not going to come from high-priced free agents. If people are expecting the Orioles to go out and sign a significant pitcher, I think it's more realistic to look for good pitchers from the farm system."