A day after the Orioles failed to re-sign right fielder Nick Markakis, sparking spirited discussion among fans and even a former teammate about the organization's direction, club executive vice president Dan Duquette on Thursday defended the club's move to not retain its longest-tenured player.
Speaking publicly for the first time since Markakis agreed to a four-year, $44 million deal Wednesday with the Atlanta Braves, Duquette addressed the departures of both Markakis and slugger Nelson Cruz in a fan question-and-answer session at Dempsey's Brew Pub & Restaurant in a Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum and Sports Legends Museum event.
Duquette said the Orioles were "fairly close a couple times" to re-signing Markakis, a homegrown player who has spent his entire nine-year major league career in Baltimore, but the club had a "concern that made the terms an issue for us." He wouldn't specify the terms of the club's proposal to Markakis, but according to industry sources, the Orioles were hesitant to offer Markakis a fourth year because of health concerns related to a bulging disk in Markakis' neck. The Orioles have a reputation for stringent medical standards when signing players to multiyear deals.
"It's tough," Duquette said at the Baltimore restaurant. "You have to look at what the risks are, the risks of performance and also the risks of nonperformance. When you're making the investments we're making in these ballplayers, I've found [that] to have the flexibility and the good farm system, that'll really help you out."
On Thursday, Cruz officially signed a four-year, $58 million deal with the Seattle Mariners, but Duquette told fans the Orioles already have the pieces to help replace him and Markakis, with more prospects waiting in the wings.
"A lot of people look at the exit, at what we lost," Duquette said. "We lost the home runs, we lost the experience, we lost the on-base capabilities. But we didn't spend $90 million, either. So not only do we have young players available to come up and help the ballclub, we also have that money where we can reinvest. It's an issue, but I don't think it's an insurmountable issue to put together a good team for next year."
Duquette said he will head to next week's winter meetings in San Diego looking for external options to upgrade the outfield by either trade or free agency. Adding bullpen depth will be another priority, Duquette said.
Earlier in the day, center fielder Adam Jones sounded surprised to see his longtime teammate go elsewhere. He said he always expected Markakis to re-sign.
"I thought it was going to happen," Jones said. "When you think of the Orioles, you think of Nick Markakis, in my eyes. He was just that gritty guy. If you want to break it down into business terms, that's what happened with this situation. It was business. And, OK, this is how business is. … The reason why Markakis is [special] is, you know the Oriole Way? Well, he is the definition of the Oriole Way. He straps it on. He plays every day, plays hard, runs hard down the line. He dives, he's gritty. Got eye black on. Plays the game hard, plays the game with respect. That's the Oriole Way."
Barring an offseason upgrade, Steve Pearce and Alejandro De Aza likely will flank Jones in the Orioles' Opening Day outfield. Duquette said De Aza, who was acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox in August, has performed comparably to Markakis over the past three seasons. And he mentioned to the crowd that staying with Pearce, whom he said the Oakland Athletics were interested in last season, paid off with a breakout year. Duquette also said fourth outfielder David Lough finished the season strong and that the club was in talks to re-sign free-agent outfielder-designated hitter Delmon Young.
Though Duquette acknowledged their lack of experience, he said he could see Cuban defector Dariel Alvarez helping to fill Markakis' role in right field down the road, while outfielder Mike Yastrzemski is also waiting in the wings.
"I just think we try to put together a competitive team year in and year out, and we have to balance that with the economics associated with long-term contracts," Duquette said. "We do have some young players in our farm system who we think over the next couple years can help the club, specifically in the outfield. We're charged with giving those young players a chance.
"When Nick Markakis came up, he was a young ballplayer. He came up when he was  years old, and he played nine seasons with the club. He had some very good years and he will be 31 at the start of the contract. So there's opportunity there for other players. We appreciate the work that Nick did, and it's now time to turn the page."
Orioles fan and Takoma Park resident Matt Rogers, who attended Thursday's event, said he has faith that the Orioles brain trust will find a way to replace Markakis and Cruz.
"In my mind, it's 'In Buck we trust' and 'In Duquette we trust,' " Rogers said, referring to Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "You know that they know tons more than we'd ever know. I'm happy for Markakis. I'm glad he's not in the American League. Good for him and good for Nelson Cruz."
Jones, one of the veteran voices of the clubhouse, said he's eagerly anticipating the Orioles' next move.
"Now we'll see what's the move," said Jones, who is signed through 2018. "This is something I believed in while signing a six-year deal. … So, OK, the plan is me trusting Showalter. The famous slogan — 'In Buck we trust, Baltimore' — so he has to have something up his sleeve. Now we just have to sit and wait. It's a long offseason. The winter meetings are coming; it's a lot of things that are happening now. It's crazy, though. To me, I feel like I lost my superstar teammate. It's like I lost one of my core, but we'll see what they've got up their sleeves.
"I mean, something has to be brewing in order for them to let Markakis go. I have to have the respect for the front office that they deserve. I have to see what Showalter and Dan [Duquette] have up their sleeves. I've reached out to them, seeing what ideas they have. Not much luck there. But, hey, they have something up their sleeves. It's a long offseason. They better have something up their sleeves."