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Orioles' winning ways mean losing the 'out-opportunity' game

Why will the Orioles have to change their free agent plan a little this year?

When the Pittsburgh Pirates designated left-handed-hitting first baseman Ike Davis for assignment Thursday, I immediately began receiving inquiries as to whether I thought the Orioles would be interested in Davis.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Any time a guy with a track record becomes available – or is even rumored to be available – fans want to know if the Orioles will go after him. I’m sure that’s the case in many cities throughout baseball.

Things are different now in Baltimore, though. The Orioles are winners after years of collecting players from the scrap heap. It’s not that they have stopped looking for buried diamonds – that’s executive vice president Dan Duquette’s favorite pastime.

But now those guys on the scrap heap might look past Baltimore for a lesser club with more opportunity. Weird, huh?

Orioles manager Buck Showalter likes to say that his club can "out-opportunity" other teams. In other words, they can offer a chance to talented players who haven’t been given a real shot. That was true in the past.

Adam Jones came from another organization and received his first full chance to play in Baltimore, as did Chris Davis and Steve Pearce and Tommy Hunter. Delmon Young received an opportunity to contribute to a contender when he didn’t have a job, as did Miguel Gonzalez and Darren O’Day. The list goes on and on.

But now many of those scrap-heap Orioles have established themselves. And the out-opportunity carrot just isn’t there anymore.

Assuming Ike Davis isn’t traded and then clears waivers – the Pirates have seven days to deal him or waive him – he’ll become a free agent and can go anywhere he wants. The Orioles have always been intrigued by him; he’s only 27 and hit 32 homers in 2012. There’s a catch, though.

Although every player wants to go to a contender, every player also wants to play a lot for a contender. Ike Davis and his representatives will look at the Orioles and see Chris Davis at first and Pearce at first-left field-DH and they’ll look to another club with a hole at first base.

That’s going to happen more and more often to the Orioles now.

Nick Hundley, for instance, did a solid job behind the plate sharing time with Caleb Joseph when starter Matt Wieters went down with an elbow injury in 2014. Hundley’s personality fit in well, and the Orioles would like him back at a reasonable rate.

But Wieters is expected to return around the start of the season and Joseph is a cheap and competent backup. There’s no guarantee if Hundley returned that he’d get enough playing time to make him happy. Since he’s proven he can at least be a half-time starter, he’ll likely get that opportunity elsewhere.

Andrew Miller is another example. The Orioles would love to have the lefty reliever back. And it’s my sense they’d be willing to make a competitive offer to keep him. But some teams will view him as a closer and pay him that way. And with Zach Britton seizing the Orioles’ closer’s role last year, Miller knows he wouldn’t be handed that job if he came back to Baltimore.

Miller likes winning. And he said at the end of the season that closing games wasn’t his No. 1 priority. But it is the glamour spot in the bullpen and it’d be difficult for any team to justify giving a lucrative, four-year contract to a reliever if it weren’t considering having that pitcher close games. Again, it will be a matter of getting an opportunity that the Orioles can’t offer. 

The same can be said for the starting rotation. It’s highly unlikely a mid-level starter looking for a guaranteed spot will choose the Orioles, who already have six pitchers for the rotation. Sure they could make room for Jon Lester or Max Scherzer, but Ervin Santana? Not this year.

It’s sort of the opposite of what happened from 2000 to 2010. Most top free agents wouldn’t look at signing with the Orioles, assuming things were equal, because they weren’t winners. So the Orioles had to settle for the second-tier players.

Now that they are winning many of the key spots on the roster are filled. There’s little room for second-tier players. That’s the reality of being good.

Perhaps that changes a little if Nelson Cruz or Nick Markakis or both find jobs elsewhere. Cruz is shopping for at least a four-year deal. And Markakis is seemingly caught in a slow play as the Orioles figure out how they are going to proceed with their roster.

I still expect Markakis to be back and I’m 50-50 on Cruz. But with them in limbo, you can’t expect solid, free agent hitters to sign with the Orioles for fear that the lineup will close if Markakis and Cruz return.

Despite all that rationale, Duquette is going to find his cheap, take-a-chance guys, such as Young last year, who signed in January on a minor-league deal and worked his way into becoming a critical part-time player and pinch-hitter. He’s a free agent, too, and the Orioles may choose to let him walk and find another veteran looking for a job later in the winter, Delmon 2.0.

I think that’s the key here. Duquette will likely have to wait until January or February, when roster spots are scarce and few teams are offering guaranteed opportunity to make his patented under-the-radar additions.

A player like Ike Davis will be long gone by then.  But someone you’ve heard of will be looking for a job – and they’ll choose a limited role on the “winning” Orioles.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

twitter.com/danconnollysun

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