There is room for debate about whether the seemingly frozen free-agent market will work to the benefit or detriment of the Orioles as they prepare to open spring training next week.
It probably depends on how Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette chooses to play it.
For instance, this could be an opportunity to make a run at third baseman Mike Moustakas, whose left-handed power would play nicely at Camden Yards and improve the right-left balance of the Orioles lineup. He will still be expensive by small-market standards, but this is the moment when somebody might be able to take advantage of the uncertainty that has taken hold of the industry at this late stage of the offseason.
There apparently won’t be a spring training boycott to counter the suspicion among players and their agents that ownership is colluding to hold down salaries, but it will look like one if all these free agents are sitting at home when camps open.
So, maybe it’s time for Duquette to step out of character and beat a few teams to the punch.
Moustakas is a long shot, especially with the Orioles already set to move Tim Beckham to third base. But signing a proven player at that position would put the Orioles in a better position to deal Manny Machado for a good return if a contending team suffers a serious loss at either of his positions during spring training.
That would create an awkward situation for Beckham, but let’s be honest. The team envisions him more as a super utility player than a third baseman, and he would be available to move back to shortstop if Machado does not make it to Opening Day.
The Orioles obviously are more interested in filling the gaping holes in their starting rotation, but the lack of movement in the free-agent market could actually work against them if they don’t get ahead of the game.
In past seasons, Duquette was able to pick off players from a small group of free agents who no longer had anywhere better to go, but that dynamic might be too slow to develop this spring for the Orioles to risk waiting for it.
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If the pace of signings does not ramp up dramatically in the next week, the Orioles might have too much competition during the early part of spring training to come away with anyone good enough to change the pessimistic conversation about their ability to compete for a playoff berth for 2018.
In fact, the longer this drags on, the more vulnerable the Orioles become, because they need to get several inexperienced catchers up to speed while sorting through an existing group of 35 pitchers — 24 on the roster and 11 nonroster invitees — that likely will be tweaked several times over the next seven weeks.
Duquette has to know that his painfully patient offseason strategy will be put to the ultimate test this year, partly because it seems to have been adopted industry-wide and partly because he’s in the final year of his contract and might not get another chance beyond this season.
Timing really is everything. The Orioles ended a 14-year playoff drought in Duquette’s first season with the Orioles and reached the playoffs two more times before the 2017 season unraveled in September as the club finished with a losing record for the first time in his tenure.
No matter what he does between now and the start of the regular season, the Orioles will be facing a hostile environment in the American League East. The New York Yankees blew past them last summer and added the top power bat in baseball early in the offseason. The Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays have vastly superior starting rotations.
There’s no guarantee that anything the Orioles do now will change their outlook in relation to their well-heeled and well-stocked rivals. But if they’re going to try anything to alter that dismal outlook, they had better get to it.
It’s their only hope.