SARASOTA, Fla. — The ink has only just dried on the Orioles' monumental four-year deal with starter Ubaldo Jimenez, but the club remains interested in acquiring at least one other big-ticket free agent.
The Orioles have intensified their pursuit of free-agent designated hitter Kendrys Morales and right-handed starter Ervin Santana, according to industry sources.
The club has been linked to both players throughout the offseason, but did not appear to be in serious negotiations recently as Jimenez signed a four-year, $50 million deal, the largest and longest contract given to a free-agent pitcher in franchise history.
If the Orioles sign either Morales or Santana, who are among the four remaining free agents tied to draft pick compensation, they would give up their second-round selection, which is roughly No. 55 overall, in this year's draft. By signing Jimenez, the Orioles already have forfeited their 2014 first-round draft pick — the 17th overall selection — under the qualifying-offer compensation process.
The Orioles also had to give up their competitive-balance selection, No. 35 overall, when they acquired right-hander Bud Norris from the Houston Astros in a trade-deadline deal last year.
The Orioles will have lost their top three picks this season, and will not have a pick until the third round, if they were to acquire either Morales or Santana. But by signing the 30-year-old Jimenez, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette — whose philosophy on sustaining success is rooted in player development — has prioritized an effort to build the club to win now.
Duquette said Thursday that he would consider additional free agents linked to draft pick compensation on a case-by-case basis.
Now that the Orioles have signed a front-line starter in Jimenez, Morales, 30, appears to fit better than Santana; his switch-hitting power bat would fit nicely in the middle of a well-stacked Orioles batting order. in 156 games with the Seattle Mariners last season, Morales batted .277/.336/.449 with 23 home runs and 80 RBIs.
Acquiring Jimenez also conceivably fills the last of the five spots in the rotation, joining Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris. The possible addition of Santana, who went 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA over 32 starts with the Kansas City Royals last season, would further muddle the rotation picture.
However, according to an industry source, the Orioles had discussions with Santana's camp as recently as Thursday. Like Jimenez, he's built up a reputation of durability — an area of need for the the Orioles rotation this offseason — recording at least 30 starts in five of his past six seasons. The 31-year-old also has recorded 200 innings in three of his past four seasons.
Over the course of the offseason, teams have been hesitant to forfeit their draft picks. However, the deeper teams get into spring training, the more unsigned free agents intensify their search for potential landing spots. Free agents who previously sought multiyear deals might now be lured by shorter deals with opt-out clauses that could allow them to test the market again next season
For example, a shorter deal with an opt-out for Morales could be an option for the Orioles now, according to a source. Previously, the 30-year-old Morales was thought to be seeking a four- or five-year deal. Now it appears that a two-year deal with an opt-out option after the first season could be in play.
Morales' agent, Scott Boras, has negotiated multiple free-agent contracts with opt-out clauses in the past. Morales' situation compares to that of third baseman Adrian Beltre, who left pitcher-friendly Seattle as a free agent after a down 2009 season. Boras negotiated a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox for Beltre, with a player option for 2011.
After a tremendous 2010 season in which Beltre won a Silver Slugger Award and finished ninth in voting for the American League Most Valuable Player, Beltre opted out and landed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Texas Rangers.
The Orioles could benefit from an opt-out as well, as they still would be able to make a qualifying offer. If it were rejected, the club would receive a compensation pick for the following year's draft should the free agent sign elsewhere. Essentially, the Orioles would have traded a second-round pick in this year's draft for a sandwich pick (between the first and second rounds) in 2015.
Ultimately, the roadblock to another free-agent signing would be if the Orioles decide not to exceed their estimated $100 million budget in 2014. With the signing of Jimenez and Suk-min Yoon, the total salary of the Orioles' projected 25-roster for 2014 is now about $97 million.
Since both Morales and Santana both turned down $14.1 million qualifying offers, they're likely looking for annual salaries in that range. Still, the fact that Jimenez agreed to a deal that pays him an average annual salary of $12.5 million showed that prices have come down.
The Orioles reportedly have also been linked to right fielder Nelson Cruz, another free agent tied to draft pick compensation, but Morales seems to be a better fit. He is three years younger than Cruz, and while Cruz could contribute in the outfield, he also comes with the stigma of having been suspended in the Biogenesis scandal.