Since signing right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, the Orioles have intensified their interest in free agent designated hitter Kendrys Morales, according to a source.
The Orioles have been linked to the switch-hitting designated hitter throughout the offseason, but didn't appear to be in serious negotiations previously. That pursuit seemingly has increased in seriousness, the source said, due to two developments.
One, the Orioles had been hesitant to forfeit their first-round pick – 17th overall – to sign Morales, but they instead forfeited it when agreeing to a four-year deal with Jimenez.
If they were to sign Morales now, the Orioles would surrender their second-rounder, roughly the 55th selection overall in 2014, which obviously is not as coveted as a first-round (or supplemental) pick.
Secondly, a shorter deal with an opt-out for Morales is potentially available for the Orioles now. Previously it was thought that the 30-year-old Morales was seeking a four- or five-year deal only, but now it appears that a two-year deal with an opt out after the first season could be in play.
That makes sense considering Morales' agent, Scott Boras, has done multiple free-agent contracts with opt-out clauses in the past. Perhaps the most obvious comparison to Morales' situation is third baseman Adrian Beltre, who left pitcher-friendly Seattle as a free agent following a down 2009 season. Boras negotiated a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox for Beltre with a player option for 2011.
Beltre had a tremendous year with the Red Sox – winning a Silver Slugger Award and finishing ninth in the AL MVP – before choosing to re-enter the free-agent market that winter. The gamble paid off and Beltre landed a five-year $80 million deal with the Texas Rangers.
One other thing that makes an opt-out contract with the Orioles logical is that if Morales were to leave the Orioles after a strong 2014 season, the club would undoubtedly offer him a qualifying offer. If Morales rejected it – which he obviously would if he were choosing to opt out – the Orioles would get a compensation pick after the first round the following year.
So essentially they would be moving up from a second-round pick in 2014 to a compensatory pick in 2015.
Ultimately, the roadblock to a Morales deal would be if the Orioles decide not to exceed their estimated $100 million budget in 2014. Since he turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer earlier this winter from Seattle, it would stand to reason he'll be looking for a deal at least in that range – which is comparable to the salaries of some other designated hitters.
With the signings of Jimenez and Suk-min Yoon, the Orioles' projected 25-roster for 2014 sits at about $96 million.
The Orioles are said to be still active in the free-agent market with reports linking them to outfielder Nelson Cruz and pitcher Ervin Santana. The Orioles have talked with Santana's representation as recently as Thursday, according to a source.
If the Orioles would prefer adding a hitter to their already strong lineup, Morales appears to fit better given that he is roughly three years younger than Cruz and is a switch-hitter. Cruz has the advantage that he can play the outfield – though he is considered a below-average right fielder – but he also comes with the stigma of being suspended in the Biogenesisperformance-enhancing drug scandal.
At Camden Yards, both have fared well, with Morales getting the edge in a smaller sample size. He has hit .413 with three homers and a 1.177 on-base-plus-slugging average in 12 games in Baltimore; Cruz has hit for a .333 average with two homers and an .840 on-base-plus slugging average in 21 games in Baltimore.
There is some concern, however, that Cruz's consistently solid numbers – 22 or more homers and a .260 batting average or higher in five consecutive seasons – is inflated by a home ballpark in which he has posted a .911 on-base-plus slugging in his career versus .734 on the road.
The main criticism of Morales is that he is a below-average first baseman and likely would be limited to designated hitter duties only. Orioles manager Buck Showalter prefers having flexibility at DH so he can give some regular position players rest from the field, but he has said he'd be fine with a full-time DH if he had a particularly good one.