Two years ago, the Orioles went into spring training having had an offseason not nearly as productive as this one, but managed to use baseball's qualifying offer system to land two lingering free agents for under-market-value deals.
And now, with spring training on the horizon, the Orioles could pull off another coup by signing two of the three remaining free agents tied to draft pick compensation.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette's often meticulous approach to free-agent acquisitions draws its share of criticism. But before the 2014 season, he allowed the market to play out and was able to sign right-handed starter Ubaldo Jimenez and outfielder Nelson Cruz, two players who were still lingering unsigned after declining qualifying offers. They both lost out on larger free-market deals. Other teams were afraid to bite, uneasy about giving up their highest unprotected draft pick to sign each of the players.
Now the Orioles are interested in both right-hander Yovani Gallardo and outfielder Dexter Fowler, both of whom are tied to draft-pick compensation.
For most of this offseason, the Orioles have been hesitant to lose their first-round pick – which is currently the 14th overall selection – in order to sign either player. But now, the Orioles appear content to lose their top two selections – the 14th and 29th overall picks – to nab Gallardo and Fowler as value deals.
Back when the Orioles signed Jimenez and Cruz during spring training in 2014, they forfeited the 17th overall pick to sign Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal. That made them completely OK with losing the 55th overall selection in order to sign Cruz to a one-year, $8 million contract. But it's known that if the Orioles weren't able to lock up Jimenez to a long-term deal, they wouldn't have been OK with losing their first-round pick to get Cruz for just one year, even though Cruz went on to lead the majors with 40 homers that season.
The Orioles are engaged in continuing dialogue with Gallardo on what is believed to be a three-year deal, and sides could agree to terms on a contract soon. Initially, Gallardo was seeking a deal in the neighborhood of Jimenez's four-year, $50 million deal, but he has been unable to get that kind of commitment, partially because teams don't want to lose their first draft pick.
It's likely that an Orioles' pursuit of Fowler only makes sense if they've already signed Gallardo because the club is looking for a shorter-term deal with the 29-year-old outfielder. But one club official said that he'd go after Fowler first because it's easier to justify losing a first-round pick when you're getting a high-quality position player rather than a starting pitcher.
Now, the argument can be made that neither player – Gallardo or Fowler – is worth losing a first-round pick. And that might truly be the case, but they both fit the Orioles' needs well, which is the biggest reason this possible scenario is real.
Gallardo, who turns 30 later this month, would give the Orioles starting rotation the anchor it needs. He has averaged 191 innings the past seven seasons, and while his strikeout numbers and velocity have both gone down, he has a 3.65 ERA over the past five seasons.
And Fowler can fill the team's corner-outfield hole. A center fielder by trade, he would likely move to right field with newly acquired outfielder Hyun-soo Kim playing left. He would also fill the Orioles' need for a leadoff hitter, and that would allow third baseman Manny Machado – who had the best offensive year of his career in 2015 – to move into the heart of the order.
The Orioles have already committed nearly $215 million in free-agent contracts this offseason, and their 2016 payroll is already more than $130 million. Both of those numbers are franchise records.
But digging into the pocketbook a little more to get Gallardo and Fowler -- or just one of the two for that matter -- would be the latest move in a surprising change in spending.