With the unpredictability of free-agent contracts, Orioles see benefits of patience

The Orioles have gone a long way toward shedding their reputation as a free-agent-averse organization, but the recent re-signing of Mark Trumbo and the likelihood of 2017 being another record payroll year doesn't really make it any easier to predict the makeup of the team beyond the upcoming season.

If you recall, there was a time just a couple of years ago when it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that pending free agents Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and Wei-Yin Chen would be headed out of town because of the huge contracts they all anticipated signing after the 2015 season.


The Orioles just weren't a $100-million-contract kind of franchise, and all the indicators were pointing toward another big salary spiral that would — by some accounts — lead to the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado breaking the $400-million barrier when they got closer to free-agent eligibility.

That could still happen, but the predictability of both the major league salary structure and the Orioles' place in it have come into serious question since then. Few believed superagent Scott Boras would allow Wieters to accept the Orioles' qualifying offer 15 months ago and even fewer thought the O's would give Davis a seven-year, $161 million contract, regardless of the substantial deferred portion that helped get the deal done.


Who would have even imagined that the Orioles would be one of the biggest-spending clubs last winter and would pony up almost $50 million more this offseason to keep Trumbo and sign free-agent catcher Welington Castillo?

So, you might think that increases the likelihood that owner Peter Angelos will be willing to do whatever it takes to keep pitching ace Chris Tillman past this season and sign Machado to a long-term extension before he gets too close to the open market. But there's really no way to make real sense of any of this.

While the club certainly has upped the ante to stay in playoff contention, its ability to do so has been impacted greatly by markets the past several winters that have played right into the deliberate approach of Orioles baseball operations chief Dan Duquette.

Duquette waited until the start of spring training to sign eventual home run champ Nelson Cruz to a bargain contract in 2014. He also waited until late January to sign Davis and Trumbo. Really, who would be that surprised if he trotted Wieters out this weekend at FanFest?

OK, maybe that would be quite a surprise with Castillo ready to take over behind the plate. But Wieters' situation — both past and present — is an example of just how difficult it is to figure out what's going to happen next in a talent auction that will soon be governed by baseball's new collective bargaining agreement.

Wieters was projected by some to get a fairly huge multiyear deal as he approached free-agent eligibility, and maybe he would have gotten one if he had not required Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2014. Instead, he accepted the Orioles' $15.8 million qualifying offer and waited for another chance to hit the free-agent jackpot this winter.

He's still out there with spring training set to open in three weeks, and it might not be totally out of the question that he ends up back here on another one-year deal, though there's talk he's close to signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

He'll land somewhere, and nobody is going to have to throw a benefit for him, but the fact that he has remained unsigned this long appears to be another indication of how the money ebbs and flows in this relatively new free-agent era.


Top free-agent pitchers were the talk of the 2015-16 offseason, with David Price and Zack Greinke both getting deals worth more than $200 million. But soon after Jason Heyward signed his ridiculous $184 million deal, the market slowed and no one other than Davis has signed for anywhere near that much since.

Though fans continue to clamor for the Orioles to step up negotiations with Tillman and Machado, it's going to be hard to convince Duquette that he should be in a rush to do anything until next year's market reveals itself.

Leaving the future of two such important players to chance is a risky business, but Duquette has done it before and he'll probably do it again.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at and follow him @Schmuckstop on Twitter.