As the Orioles continue to take stock of players on the free-agent market, there should only be one factor that proves more prohibitive than the raw dollars some top free agents will command: the loss of a draft pick when they sign.
The 10 players given a qualifying offer, requiring a team that signs them to lose a draft pick in addition to the money they'll be paid, should be off limits to an Orioles team that is staring down an uncertain future.
Simply put, the Orioles can’t afford to sacrifice another first-round pick to improve the present club, even if the argument is strong enough to persuade them the other way.
To do that — to sign a Dexter Fowler or an Ian Desmond to man right field for the next several years — would immeasurably help the 2017 Orioles. They’re short on speed, short on good outfield defenders and short on table-setters in the lineup (though only Fowler would qualify as that).
At the moment, they’re the two primary candidates to fill a that need. But even if losing a draft pick drives down the long-term price to meet the Orioles' budget, the loss of a pick, which at this point would be the 23rd overall, should be a deterrent.
The Orioles have the salary constraints they do because of the largely intact major league core on their roster, with veterans like center fielder Adam Jones and shortstop J.J. Hardy in the second half of long-term deals and arbitration-eligible stars such as third baseman Manny Machado, closer Zach Britton and second baseman Jonathan Schoop all earning hefty pay bumps for the coming year.
But two seasons from now, the Orioles could watch most of their rotation leave via free agency. Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley and Yovani Gallardo are all in their walk years. Hardy’s deal has an option for 2018 at $14 million, but could end next year. Jones is a free agent after the 2018 season, as are Britton and Machado.
There’s no use straddling the two worlds — contending and rebuilding — at once. But to push another draft pick away to make one or two more runs at a World Series ring regardless of its future impact would be a dangerous move.
As it stands, the signings of Nelson Cruz and Jimenez in 2014 meant the Orioles didn’t pick until the third round that year. Coincidentally, there was a dearth of high-end talent on both Single-A affiliates this year, where that draft class populates the rosters. This year’s draft class, headlined by pitcher Cody Sedlock, is receiving plaudits, but the Orioles still forfeited a pick for Gallardo.
Combine that with the Orioles dealing three of their four competitive-balance picks, valuable for the signing bonus slot money and opportunity to add talent on the first day of the June draft, and that's six players who could have helped the Orioles long term. The farm system has improved in recent years, but one look at the impact players from some of the Orioles' playoff peers shows how far the organization still has to go.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette has been able to find value at the margins of free agency and the trade market often enough that the Orioles should bypass free agents who cost them a draft pick for the sake of their own future.