Darren O'Day forces Orioles out of financial comfort zone with leadership

Orioles center fielder Adam Jones congratulates relief pitcher Darren O'Day after their 9-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers.

The Orioles were in the middle of a season-defining tailspin late last August when Orioles manager Buck Showalter pulled four veteran players into the visiting manager's office in Texas. He wanted to exchange ideas with the players; he wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page and this quartet was his sounding board.

Two of his choices were obvious: center fielder Adam Jones and shortstop J.J. Hardy, both of whom had previously signed contract extensions and were going to be part of the club for at least two more seasons, maybe three.

The other two choices were more curious: pending free-agent catcher Matt Wieters and reliever Darren O'Day. Curious not because of their leadership capabilities — they are among the most widely respected people the Orioles have employed in the past decade — but because they both were potentially thought to be on their way out of Baltimore at season's end.

But Showalter understood just how respected Wieters and O'Day are.

Flashback to September 2014: Chris Davis was suspended for failing an amphetamines test as the Orioles were about to head to the playoffs. Davis, who was reeling from his decision, was separated from his team at crunch time. He was despondent and said three conversations with teammates stood out at that time. One with his buddy, the affable Tommy Hunter, who offered an "I love you, man." The other two were with Wieters and O'Day, who were selling much tougher love. They both stressed how much they were ticked off and disappointed with Davis.

It was a reality check for Davis. The slugger later acknowledged that Wieters and O'Day could get away with such straight talk. It's the kind of people they are — they immediately command respect.

There's no question that baseball salaries have become even more stratospheric so far this offseason, but what the Orioles have done in the past month is pay for leadership.

Wieters accepted a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Orioles in November. And, on Sunday, sources said O'Day agreed, in principle, to a four-year, $31 million deal with the Orioles, pending certain specifics being finalized, including a physical. O'Day made a point on Twitter on Sunday afternoon to say he hadn't officially agreed to anything "yet."

Bottom line is that as of Sunday it was likely, but not guaranteed.

Regardless, this deal almost didn't happen. A source said O'Day was about to sign with the Nationals on Friday evening when the Orioles stepped up with a four-year offer. The pending deal with the Nationals was worth more annually than the Orioles' updated offer, but Washington was not willing to go beyond a three-year contract for the 33-year-old reliever.

The Orioles took that extra step – even though they had never given a reliever a four-year contract and had done it just once with any free-agent pitcher (starter Ubaldo Jimenez).

And it's clear they took that step because it was O'Day, who unquestionably is the leader of the club's pitching staff. His statistics are impressive – an ERA under 2.00 and 68 or more appearances in each of his four seasons in Baltimore – but it's the type of person O'Day is that made the Orioles go out of their comfort zone.

The Orioles would never say it publicly, but the decisions not to give outfielders Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz haunted them last year. And not just on the field.

Club vice president Dan Duquette and company are attuned to what a player's economic value should be, and the offers Markakis and Cruz received surpassed those statistical values in the Orioles' opinion. But what wasn't factored in – what is difficult to quantify – is how much the consistent professionalism and steady presences of Markakis and Cruz were missed.

If you ask Orioles players privately, they'll tell you those absences really were felt. And so maybe the decision to give O'Day a fourth year was a lesson learned from last offseason.

One other interesting thing to watch now: Assuming the O'Day deal becomes official, will it mean anything to the Davis negotiations? One could take the approach that there is now less money for the Orioles to re-sign their free-agent slugger.

But O'Day in the fold might be a sign that the club is willing to push a little further to keep their own guys this year. And the fact that O'Day and Davis are exceptionally good friends certainly can't hurt the Orioles' cause in bringing back Davis.