Commentary: Bargain-hunting Birds sitting out free agency again?

Scouring the Internet for all manner of hot-stove news and conjecture Friday, I noted CBSSports.com's report that the Orioles had signed Brandon Webb.
I found the move a little odd given that Webb, who won 70 games for Arizona from 2005-08, has been retired for years after shredding his rotator cuff.
But, then again, we're talking about the Orioles and he pretty much fits the past-their-prime-and-cheap profile the team targets in free agency.
Turns out, it was a misprint. Brandon Webb remains retired and, probably, still unable to lift his once-useful right arm.
The Orioles actually landed Ryan Webb, a fairly anonymous reliever whose signing rightly got lost as other teams were spending real money for actual free-agent talent like Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Curtis Granderson, Jhonny Peralta, and ex-Oriole Scott Feldman (or trading for Doug Fister).
The winter meetings begin Monday and, to be sure, there's still a chance for the Orioles to make a big splash. They're rumored to be suitors for outfielders Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz and pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. (In fact, Choo would fit perfectly into the left field/leadoff spot currently occupied by, well, who exactly?)
Given their recent history of refusing to pay market value for players still in their prime, Orioles fans will believe it when they see it. Those fans are rightly wondering how adding Webb, Johnny Monell, Cord Phelps, Edgmer Escalona, Francisco Peguero and Jemile Weeks while subtracting Jim Johnson, Nate McLouth and Feldman are going to turn the Orioles into a playoff team.
No issues with trading Johnson, who's going to be one of the many vastly overpaid closers this - providing the savings of $10 million or so go toward bringing in new talent. But who's to say it will?
Many ranked the Orioles' performance last offseason as 30th-best out of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball.
Hard to believe acquiring Alexi Casilla, Danny Valencia, Conor Jackson, Travis Ishikawa, Chris Dickerson, Freddy Garcia, Josh Stinson, and Jason Pridie didn't translate into a deep playoff run, huh?
But it was in line with the way the Orioles have controlled payroll since the late-1990s.
The eight previous offseasons netted a few pretty good trades, but not a single important free-agent signing - unless you considered over-the-hill gang members Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Garrett Atkins, Steve Trachsel, Jamie Walker and/or Kevin Millar to be important.
Don't take this as advocating for doling out ridiculous, too-long-term contracts such as the ones signed by Cano and Ellsbury. The lessons of Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez, it seems, are still being ignored by some.
But there is middle ground between a 10-year, $240-million player and the "bargain" players Baltimore goes after every winter.
Even the small-market Astros, Athletics, Royals and Twins have been active in free agency.
Meanwhile, the Orioles haven't anted up for a quality, in-his-prime free agent since 2004, when they signed Miguel Tejada. Admittedly, that signing didn't work out so well, but at least it briefly energized the fan base.
That same fan base, so excited after the breakthrough, playoff season of 2012, is back to being wary.
And it's trying to figure out why it is the Orioles seem to have imposed a salary cap of around $90 million on themselves in a sport that has no such cap - despite the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network dollars, escalating national revenue and a nice up-tick in attendance last season.
One of the excuses always made by and for the team's reluctance to sign top-quality free agents is that they don't want to lose a first-round draft pick.
Of course, if any team can afford to part with a first-round pick it's the Orioles, who whiffed on all but Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz from 1993-2009 despite usually selecting quite high.
Another excuse is that the Orioles have to save up to sign existing talent like Chris Davis and Matt Wieters. But every team has to do that. More and more teams are opting to lock up key players before they become free agents.
So Orioles fans are waiting. And wondering if they'll once again be left with the scraps after the big boys (and, this year, even the little boys) have signed every player of consequence.
Again, it doesn't have to be that way. The winter meetings are upon us and there could still be a jubilant, pre-Christmas press conference at the warehouse with Choo or Cruz or Jimenez (or all of the above) smiling and holding up a fresh, new Orioles jersey.
Then again, will anyone be shocked if the 2014 season begins with Nolan Reimold in left field, some guy who hit 30 home runs in the early-2000s at designated hitter, and the same starting rotation that couldn't get it done in 2013?

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