The Miami Marlins not only gave Chen more guaranteed money (a reported $80 million) than the O's have ever imagined giving a free-agent pitcher, but they also gave him a sixth-year vesting option worth another $16 million and a two-year opt-out clause that dynamically shifts the risk/reward ratio in favor of the player.
That might be an example of the otherworldly negotiating skills of agent Scott Boras, but it would have been borderline irresponsible for the Orioles to extend an offer similar to that with a $150 million offer still dangling in front of slugger Chris Davis.
Orioles fans would love to live in a world where their team was willing to spend a guaranteed $230 million for Davis and Chen on top of $15.8 million next season for Matt Wieters and a record $31 million deal for setup man Darren O'Day. That would certainly show they are committed to fielding a competitive team after last year's .500 finish.
What it would not have done, however, was make the Orioles a better team than they were last year, which is why the situation that executive vice president Dan Duquette and the front office faced at the end of the season was so problematic.
If you recall, no one even fantasized about the Orioles bringing back every one of their three Boras-represented free agents, and the surprise decision by Wieters to accept the team's qualifying offer — coupled with the notion that Chen might be a $100 million free agent — made this day a foregone conclusion.
The fact that outfielder Gerardo Parra also signed elsewhere Tuesday — Colorado, for a reported three years and $27.5 million — probably added to the appearance that the Orioles are being left behind in the free-agent market. But they didn't try particularly hard to bring him back after his so-so performance in August, September and October.
Duquette can take comfort in the fact that he discovered Chen and got four solid years out of him for less ($15.5 million) than the Marlins will pay for one of the five seasons they reportedly have guaranteed.
What Duquette cannot take comfort in is the sad state of the remaining market for pitching and the fact that he still does not know whether Davis is coming or going.
This is where things get complicated, since you have to unwind the entire offseason to measure the impact of every choice along the way. If the Orioles had decided early on to pony up enough to re-sign Chen, it likely would have impacted their ability to make the offer that remains in play for Davis. If they had decided to do both, it probably would have kept them from acquiring slugger Mark Trumbo and re-signing O'Day.
Sure, in a perfect world, owner Peter Angelos would just hand over the checkbook and let Duquette spend all that Mid-Atlantic Sports Network money he is supposedly socking away to sign all four of those fan favorites. But every team has a budget and not many mid-market franchises are going to spend $276.8 million just to keep their top four free agents and then go in search of additional big-money players to actually upgrade the team.
This is not an apologia for a team that has a history of letting circumstances get beyond its control, but even fans have to be realistic. The Orioles were never going to be able to do everything, so the decision was made to focus their greatest effort on convincing Davis to spend the next seven years at the heart of their lineup.
Once that decision was made and that big offer tendered, the team was effectively out of the market for Chen and forced to remain in a state of suspended animation with regard to other significant free agents pending a decision from Davis.
Though Duquette did acquire Trumbo as insurance against the loss of Davis and signed South Korean star Hyun-soo Kim to play left field, the Orioles still need pitching help and remain in the market for another corner outfielder.
The club apparently retains interest in Justin Upton, but deals for a big-ticket position player and a veteran pitcher aren't likely unless Davis decides to sign elsewhere. And who knows when a decision will come or whether anyone will still be available when it does.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.