National Harbor — The Orioles weren't expected to make a big splash during this week's winter meetings at the Gaylord National Resort. So it was no surprise they left the meetings with little more than two projects and a lot of feelers.
The only thing certain was the Orioles would take a plunge into Thursday's Rule 5 draft. Club officials pored over video of available players throughout the week, and they took two outfielders in the draft's major league phase — Aneury Tavarez from the Boston Red Sox with the 12th pick and Anthony Santander with the 18th pick from the Cleveland Indians.
Household names they are not, and given the moves the Orioles' American League East rivals made under the bright hot-stove spotlight, they were barely a ripple in a tidal wave of offseason action this week.
The Orioles left still needing to find a starting catcher, and while they took two outfielders in the Rule 5 draft, that doesn't end their pursuit of corner outfield help. While Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said he was pleased with the team's progress here, he had to watch while each of his club's division rivals muscled up for 2017.
"We're the Orioles and we have a certain way of building our team and doing some things, and we have to be very resourceful to compete with the behemoths of the AL East," Duquette said Thursday after the Rule 5 draft. "We've effectively done it for a couple of years, so we're going to compete and we're going to try to do it again this year."
On Tuesday, the Red Sox acquired one of the top left-handers in the game, Chris Sale, in a blockbuster trade with the Chicago White Sox. Late Wednesday night, the New York Yankees gave Aroldis Chapman the largest contract ever given to a reliever, signing the offseason's top free-agent closer to a five-year, $86million deal.
The Orioles' other division rivals were creative in their winter meetings moves. The Tampa Bay Rays filled their starting catcher need by signing Wilson Ramos to an incentive-laden two-year deal guaranteeing him $12.5million, jumping on the opportunity to sign a below-market deal with a player coming off knee surgery. Former Oriole Steve Pearce's two-year, $12.5million pact with the Toronto Blue Jays seemed like a bit of a reach, but it showed Toronto's aggressiveness in the free-agent market.
Duquette said he left the meetings hoping that conversations with several agents and clubs would eventually bear fruit. But overall, Duquette conceded he's struggling with whether the free-agent or trade market was the Orioles' best route to fill their needs. Trade talks continued through Thursday morning before the Rule 5 draft, he said.
"We've laid groundwork for some potential deals that we can follow up on," Duquette said. "It's kind of a process. It's kind of a puzzle. The deals that you don't make help you put the pieces together for the deals that you do make."
Duquette's strength with the Orioles has been being opportunistic in the offseason. Last year's early offseason trade for slugger Mark Trumbo — the Orioles sent reserve catcher Steve Clevenger to the Seattle Mariners — might have been the steal of the offseason. And his patience through the qualifying offer process that netted Nelson Cruz on a one-year, $8 million deal was the key acquisition before a division title year in 2014. It's difficult to argue with the results: three playoff appearances over the past five years.
"We work at building our team year-round," Duquette said. "We're trying to build our team so that we're good in October, but we have to work on it on a year-round basis.
"I'm happy we added two good young players today, and we're going to continue to add to our club. The good news is that we have a veteran club and we have a lot of the good players back from last year from the team that made the playoffs. So we have the core players back. We need to add to the outfield obviously and address the catching, but the pitching staff, the lineup, the infield defense, that's all intact. That's strong and the bullpen is still a strength."
While there was early week talk revolving around Trumbo, he seemed to be more pawn than piece this week. Trumbo did not find a home at the meetings, an indication that his market has yet to develop. The same goes for other sluggers tied to qualifying offers, such as Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.
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Matt Wieters' agent, Scott Boras, acknowledged Wednesday that he might have to wait until January to find the Orioles' free-agent catcher a home. That delay could play into the Orioles' favor if they want a reunion with Wieters. But Boras' calling card is that he still gets his clients lucrative deals, a la Chris Davis' mid-January deal with the Orioles last offseason. f that's the case with Wieters, it won't be with Baltimore.
Duquette is determined to build around cornerstones Zach Britton and Manny Machado rather than entertain trade offers for them. But with both destined to become free agents following the 2018 season, they represent the Orioles' top two trade chips. One or both could net a comparable haul of young talent to what the Chicago White Sox — seen as the consensus winners of the meetings — landed in trading Sale to Boston and outfielder Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals.
The Orioles were interested in Eaton, who has five years of club-friendly control, because he'd fit for now and later. But there was no way they could offer anything close to what the Nationals did. Once the final remaining top closer, former Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kenley Jansen finds a team, there's no question that clubs left out will come knocking for Britton. That's when the direction of the Orioles' offseason might truly be determined.
Perhaps the most apropos moment came Wednesday afternoon, when Buck Showalter had his annual winter meetings managers' media session drowned out by a press conference announcing the Chicago Cubs' acquisition of closer Wade Davis in a trade with the Kansas City Royals.
The Orioles, however, are used to being in the shadows.