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February roster additions becoming Orioles' signature for success

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, left, and Nelson Cruz celebrate in the clubhouse after the Orioles clinched the American League East title with a win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 16, 2014 at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, left, and Nelson Cruz celebrate in the clubhouse after the Orioles clinched the American League East title with a win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 16, 2014 at Camden Yards in Baltimore. (Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)

The "Moneyball" Oakland Athletics found their advantage by valuing on-base percentage. The Tampa Bay Rays sought a two-percent edge over opponents, and the Pittsburgh Pirates burst to relevancy via aggressive defensive shifting.

While many other clubs are only making their final preparations for spring training, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette is one swoop away from making the February free-agent coup his team's signature advantage.

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With a club-record payroll of more than $130 million already committed for 2016 thanks to the returns of first baseman Chris Davis, catcher Matt Wieters and reliever Darren O'Day, the Orioles' pursuits of right-hander Yovani Gallardo and outfielder Dexter Fowler on the eve of spring training could make this the second time in three seasons that they've used the qualifying offer system to potentially put them over the top.

"We're trying to improve the team wherever we see the opportunity, and whenever we see the opportunity to add to the team," Duquette said. "So, we have been trying to address bringing more pitching depth to the club.

"I think we've tried to address the needs of the team going into the spring. Obviously, we have some more work to do. But returning the veteran core of the team, with the players we added, we should be very competitive."

Having players on the market who can help the Orioles — or any team — less than a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training Wednesday in Sarasota, Fla., is a newer quirk in free agency.

Under the current qualifying offer system, which went into effect after the 2012 season, a player who rejects a one-year deal at a fixed salary with his former team will cost his new team its top unprotected draft pick.

Some teams are hesitant to give that up for a nonstar free agent, so the price tag for such players plummets as spring training approaches.

The waiting game paid off for the Orioles in 2014, when on Feb. 19, they signed right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal — well below his original asking price.

Once the Orioles had surrendered their first-round draft pick for Jimenez, they gave up their second rounder to sign slugging outfielder Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal. Cruz led the majors with 40 home runs, and helped the Orioles win their first division title in 17 years. And armed with that experience, they could sign two more free agents with draft picks attached like Gallardo and Fowler this year.

Former New York Mets general manager and Orioles vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette, Dan Duquette's cousin who is now an analyst for MLB Network Radio, said the landscape has changed with such quality players being available late in the offseason.

This year, Gallardo, Fowler and All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond remain unsigned after declining qualifying offers.

"There's still [historically] been value in this time — January and February — but just the last couple of years in particular, you've had much more quality players out there in the free-agent market," Jim Duquette said. "So, if you're able to be patient and reserve some of your money, you can get some really good bargains.

"The thing is, I thought teams would copy what the Orioles did after 2014, but here we are again, going into the 2016 season, and they're poised better than most to take advantage of the down market with some of these players available."

ESPN analyst and former major league pitcher Dallas Braden said the system puts players in a difficult spot, and helps patient clubs.

"The one thing that I've always sort of scratched my head about is the idea — and it's a very real idea — that no matter how well you did last year, if 30 Major League Baseball teams just do not want to pay you to play baseball for their team, what do you do?" Braden said. "What, really, could we do?"

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As a result, teams get bargains as the season approaches.

"It's definitely a way to shake things out, let your roster sort of shake itself, and see where the big pursuers, how they shake things out," Braden said. "It lets you sort of fall into place, and it lets you evaluate your team without having to really be out in front of the pack. The Baltimore Orioles were able to lie in the weeds and wait for Nelly Cruz to come slithering by. They snapped him up and we all know what happened.

"It's definitely a shift in the landscape, as far as how teams start to really attack their needs later in the [offseason]."

The Orioles have often made late moves with Dan Duquette in charge. Last year's trade for outfielder Travis Snider came in late January. In 2014, the Orioles signed Jimenez on Feb. 19 and Cruz on Feb. 24. In 2012, they traded for starter Jason Hammel on Feb. 6.

But the Orioles are one of few teams to game the market in this specific way so far, especially among rivals this season.

The Boston Red Sox did their last major piece of business on Dec. 7. The New York Yankees traded for reliever Aroldis Chapman and infielder Starlin Castro in December, but haven't spent a dime in free agency.

The stove only remains hot in Baltimore, and any other moves would add to an offseason in which they've already committed $214.8 million in future salary.

"Bringing back Davis and keeping our core of players together is good, but we also have to be aware of our pitching depth," Duquette said. "The bullpen should be strong. The defense is good. We have our core players back up the middle — Wieters, [Adam] Jones, [J.J.] Hardy, [Jonathan] Schoop."

Braden, too, thinks having that core together and healthy, with all pieces at full capacity, gives the Orioles a chance in a tight American League race.

And Duquette believes some of the less heralded additions — a trade for first baseman/outfielder Mark Trumbo, the signing of South Korean outfielder Hyun-soo Kim, and the recent trade for right-hander Odrisamer Despaigne — plus a host of young players on the fringes, are all ready to help.

Jim Duquette said that the Orioles' rumored free-agent pursuits would make a team already in playoff contention a bit better.

"I think that you could argue that they're in the playoff mix now," he said. "There's enough uncertainty in the American League all the way around, but their margin of error is a lot thinner if they go to spring training with their current roster. If you add more quality and more depth with these two guys, if they both sign, then I feel a lot better about their chances of making the postseason because I think they'd have one of the deepest offenses in the American League, and I think they'd have enough pitching, adding Gallardo."

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