NATIONAL HARBOR — In forgoing the free agent frenzy and blockbuster trades of baseball's winter meetings over the years, the Orioles under executive vice president Dan Duquette's guidance have modeled a patient approach to roster building.
But Duquette's observation that the market for free agent hitters — both the outfielders the Orioles covet and the power hitters they seem to always wind up with — is "slowing down a bit" during this year's meetings brings with it a new set of complications.
Here at the Gaylord National Resort outside Washington, D.C., where rivals are chasing the pennant in December, there's more uncertainty than ever as to what will be awaiting the Orioles on the market when they engage in what manager Buck Showalter affectionately calls "late fishing."
"That's going to take a little time, it looks like, to get resolved," Duquette said of the ever-evolving market.
"It's a slow-moving market for us," Showalter said, "but Dan's been very good over the years, and our organization [has], about understanding where you're going to be at the end of it. The end of it is in April; it's not here in December."
Several factors go into what the Orioles could find when they're ready to pounce, chief among them the issue of qualifying offers that some of the top free-agent hitters rejected last month. That list includes former Orioles slugger Mark Trumbo and former Blue Jays Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.
Teams must now sacrifice a first-round pick to sign such a player, though a change in the system under baseball's new collective bargaining agreement means that compensation won't carry on to future free agent classes.
Instead, a first-round pick will only be given to clubs that lose a free agent for a contract worth more than $50 million, so long as the team losing the player is in one of the 15 smallest markets and they aren't over the luxury-tax threshold.
Teams that sign those free agents also won't lose a first-round pick, which is leading many to consider whether signing a free agent this offseason is worth it, when the penalty won't be so steep in the coming years.
"The qualifying offer slows things down a little bit, but I think the thing that the teams are looking at is if you have a player who has a qualifying offer, it's the last time you're going to get a top pick for him because the picks are diluted next year," Duquette said. "I think clubs are putting a significant amount of value on that pick, and thinking long and hard before they sign these players that have a qualifying offer attached this year. Next year, that's not going to be the case. It's going to be different. You're not going to have access to that first-round talent."
In years past, the Orioles have used that to their advantage, swallowing the pain of losing a pick to get a player they want. Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez landed in Baltimore because of their qualifying offers in 2014, Yovani Gallardo did last February, and he was almost joined by outfielder Dexter Fowler.
Team officials around the winter meetings are openly wondering where some of the top hitters will get the money they're expecting, and it's all hinging on the top man on the free agent lists: Encarnacion.
"I think everybody's waiting for Encarnacion, because when Encarnacion comes off the board, nobody knows what the number is, how many years it will be," MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac, a three-time All-Star pitcher, said. "Trumbo is in that mix. You've got Bautista in that mix. [Mitch] Moreland is off the board now. I think until Encarnacion is settled, you don't know what Trumbo wants; you don't know what Bautista wants. I think the whole industry in general is waiting to see what happens with Encarnacion. When that domino falls, then you'll see the rest come in."
The question then will be what do the Orioles need, and what are the alternatives? Not everyone wants to wait and find out. The Boston Red Sox filled their remaining hitting need with Moreland, a first baseman on an inexpensive one-year deal. The Blue Jays have so far opted for short-term deals with Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce, rather than re-signing one of their star free agents. Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran will fill designated-hitter needs with the Yankees and Astros, respectively, on one-year contracts.
If more teams opt for short-term fixes instead of signing a player to a contract that loses a first-round pick, the Orioles could see the market driven down on a slugger and add to their power-first lineup. The same could be true for the outfielder they hope will replace Trumbo in right field once the market clears up on center fielder Ian Desmond, another qualifying offer free agent.
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Or, conversely, the teams with money to spend could find the values of those suppressed prices too difficult to pass up.
Duquette acknowledged the flurry of action on Tuesday, principally by the Red Sox, as a product of the environment at the winter meetings, which are set up to foster signings and trades.
But to move as methodically as the Orioles do, and then see the rest of the market dawdle to your speed, has to be disconcerting to a club that is looking to return to the playoffs.
"I think there's a lot of hitters in the market," Duquette said. "We're just looking to see if we can staff our team to be as strong as we can staff it."
Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this story.