Exactly how close the Orioles were to signing Dexter Fowler remains uncertain, but the team was undoubtedly blindsided Thursday when news reached the Ed Smith Stadium complex that the outfielder had decided to return to the Chicago Cubs on a one-year deal instead of signing with the Orioles.
Fowler's apparent change of heart was the latest chapter in what has been a spring training soap opera for the Orioles during their first week of camp.
On the same day that the Orioles expected Fowler — a 29-year-old who was projected to become the team's starting right fielder and leadoff hitter — to arrive in Sarasota, he was instead in Arizona finalizing a contract with the Cubs.
It had been widely reported Tuesday that the Orioles had agreed to terms with Fowler on a three-year, $33 million deal pending a club physical, a report that was confirmed to The Baltimore Sun by a high-ranking club official. While the Orioles never confirmed it publicly, they were unquestionably moving to complete a deal.
Inside the Orioles clubhouse, players were preparing for Fowler's addition. Center fielder Adam Jones said Wednesday that Fowler told him he was on his way to Florida. Veterans gushed about the potential of a batting order topped by Fowler, whose on-base capabilities would provide the perfect table-setting for the Orioles' middle-of-the-order power bats.
"I really like the options that we have," first baseman Chris Davis said about an Orioles lineup that would include Fowler. "There's no doubt we have a lot of power in the lineup, but we have a lot of versatility."
Instead, Fowler completed a one-year, $8 million deal for this season that would pay him a guaranteed $13 million. The deal includes a $9 million mutual option and a $5million buyout if either side opts out. While the deal is substantial for a one-year pact, Fowler will be guaranteed $2.8 less than the $15.8 million qualifying offer he declined early this offseason that tied him to draft-pick compensation.
Fowler told reporters in Arizona that he rejected a three-year deal from an unspecified team.
"I didn't give [the Orioles] a verbal agreement," Fowler told the Chicago Tribune. "I don't know where that came from. It didn't come from our camp. It kind of put me in a difficult situation. … You come back to what you know."
Hours later, Fowler's agent, Casey Close of Excel Sports Management, issued a scathing statement through his agency's Twitter account, blasting the Orioles and the media, saying no agreement was ever reached with the club.
"In my 25 years in this business, never before have I witnessed such irresponsible behavior on so many fronts," Close said in the statement. "Both the Orioles front office and members of the media were so busy recklessly spreading rumors that they forgot or simply chose not to concern themselves with the truth.
"The Orioles' willful disregard of collectively bargained rules governing free agency and the media's eager complicity in helping the Orioles violate those rules are reprehensible," Close added. "Dexter Fowler never reached agreement with the Orioles and did not come close to signing with the club; any suggestion otherwise is only a continuation of an already disturbing trend."
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, reached at a Sarasota Chamber of Commerce gathering on Thursday, responded to Close's statement.
"I'm not sure what that statement is about because his job is to represent his player," Duquette said. "If the player chooses to take less money to go to another team, that's their choice. … What is he going to say now, that it's not about the money?"
This wasn't the only drama the Orioles dealt with during the first week of spring training.
The team finalized a restructured two-year, $22 million deal Thursday morning with right-hander Yovani Gallardo, whose first workout and midafternoon news conference was overshadowed by the Fowler news. But even Gallardo's deal was in limbo after his original three-year, $35 million agreement with the team hit a snag because of concerns about his right shoulder after his club physical.
The Orioles nearly pulled off a major free-agent coup by signing Gallardo and Fowler to deals that could be considered under market value — because both were tied to draft-pick compensation.
Both Gallardo and Fowler declined the $15.8 million qualifying offer from their former teams, but their pursuit of lucrative multiyear deals netted little interest because teams were hesitant to forfeit their highest unprotected draft pick to sign them.
As the offseason progressed, the sense was that Fowler preferred a shorter deal so he could test the market again sooner, but teams weren't going to give him a one-year deal and still give up a draft pick.
The Orioles appeared to find a happy medium with Fowler. But there was one team that could afford to give him a one-year flier, and that was his former club, which will now pay him less than the qualifying offer it originally made and could now also possibly get a second year.
Duquette said that even though the club never had an agreement with Fowler in place, he still believed the team was in play for Fowler's services until Thursday morning.
Duquette said Thursday that Fowler's insistence on including an opt-out clause in the agreement was the deal breaker.
"We made a very competitive offer," Duquette said. "There was not an agreement to terms because they kept insisting on an opt-out. I don't see, club ownership doesn't see the value in that type of arrangement to the Orioles. If we are going to guarantee a contract, it should be a contract."
This offseason, several big-ticket free agents — including David Price, Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Johnny Cueto and Scott Kazmir — have received lucrative deals containing opt-out clauses. And while the Orioles have been aggressive on the free-agent front this offseason, investing nearly $240 million in contracts, Duquette has made it clear he doesn't see the benefit to the club of making a deal with an opt-out.
"I don't see the advantage to the team of guaranteeing the money and allowing the player to have a free look at the market," Duquette said. "Either you're going to play the market or you're going to commit to a team. Frankly, I think it's better for our fans. Our fans want to know that the guys that are playing for the Orioles are playing for the Orioles, that they're committed to the team. And I believe that that's the right way to operate the team as a business.
"I think that's the right way to run a ballclub. If you can convince me to the merits of the team, I'm sure we can consider it, but I've yet to see the value to the club."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he wasn't surprised by the news of Fowler returning to the Cubs.
"I didn't feel like it was [done]," Showalter said. "He was a guy we were talking to, and from [what] I was made aware of, it didn't surprise me.
"We've been looking at options and comparing them to what we had and there's a lot of things we passed on. We like what we have better."
Now, Duquette said, he will continue to look elsewhere on barren free-agent and trade markets for another hitter.
"We will keep looking to build our team," Duquette said. "I'm confident we will be able to find some players that want to come and contribute to the team. We still have all the ingredients. We have good defense. We have a good bullpen. We've upgraded our pitching staff. We got good leadership on the field and good power."
Asked about Close's statements questioning the integrity of the team, Duquette said the Orioles' pursuit of Fowler was wholehearted.
"I didn't really see it that way," Duquette said. "We were sincere in our effort to sign the player. … I'm sure we can find some other players to help the team."