Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette probably didn't think that 4½ months into the 2015 season, he'd be explaining for the umpteenth time why the Orioles don't have Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis anchoring the corner-outfield positions.
But inquiring season-ticket holders still want to know.
Duquette and manager Buck Showalter tried again to justify the club's offseason decision-making during a special Q&A session for the team's best customers Saturday afternoon. But it was hard to do that without leaving the impression that the same kind of thing is going to happen several times over this coming winter.
"We've got a number of free agents on this team," Duquette said. "I can tell you this, we will sign some of them and some of them we're not going to be able to sign. Hopefully, we'll pick the right ones to sign and we can give you a competitive team year in and year out."
Cruz would appear to be the proverbial canary in the mine shaft. He had an MVP-caliber season last year and Duquette admits that the reason they weren't willing to sign him to a contract equivalent to the one he got from the Seattle Mariners was because they didn't want to guarantee a fourth year when he would be 38 years old at the end of the deal.
"It wasn't really an issue what we would pay Cruz this year," Duquette said. "It was really the years at the end of the contract. If you're going to sign a player like Cruz, you've got to pay the premium, and in his case that was the fourth year and at 34 years old, we weren't willing to do that. Right or wrong."
It's hard to argue with the age-related statistical calculation that led to that decision, but the Orioles have reached a point in this particular season where there is an argument to be made that Cruz would have been well worth the risk of an offensive downturn in 2018. For that additional $14 million, the Orioles would be less vulnerable to the very real possibility of a team-wide downturn over the next couple of years as some more expensive free agents price themselves out of Baltimore.
No one can ever know how a player or a team would have performed in a hypothetical situation. But it's hard to imagine the Orioles not being quite a bit higher up the American League East food chain with Cruz in the everyday lineup instead of the parade of half-measure players that the club has tried to sneak through the outfield this season.
Even Duquette has all but admitted that. He said in a CBS Radio interview Thursday that the club's decision to release several low-performing players over the past couple of months is "not a really good reflection of my management or the use of our resources if you're releasing players you've got to keep paying."
That's true, but it might be less disturbing if it caused the club to recognize that there are times when a team simply has to meet the market if it wants to be a legitimate World Series contender. The Orioles showed during the past offseason that they would settle for less than that and Duquette continued to promote the same philosophy with his explanation Saturday.
He said the Orioles hope to re-sign Chris Davis and some of the other players who seem destined for free agency, then returned to the usual script. Duquette repeated his assertion that big-money free agents are not usually worth the big money and that the Orioles will live or die with their minor league system and their usual offseason pursuit of bargain-basement free agents.
"I don't think the good values for player contracts are usually available in the major league free-agent market," he said. "So we look in other markets — we're active in that market — but we look to the farm system and we got a couple of draft picks for the free agents we lost last year to replenish our farm system. That's where you look first. We look at the international market. We do the Rule 5 draft. We sign minor league free agents. We make minor league trades. We've made a few minor league trades that are going to help our team next year. You just don't know it yet."
In other words, the Orioles probably aren't going to re-sign Chris Davis, Matt Wieters or Wei-Yin Chen. They probably will get Steve Pearce to stick around and still have a chance to re-sign Darren O'Day and new right fielder Gerardo Parra. But they will take another step backward unless a bunch of unproven players — and marginal newcomers — succeed where a big chunk of this year's crop has not.
Don't misunderstand. Duquette has done a terrific job the past 3½ years of putting together a winning team on a budget, which is the only reason why Orioles fans have reached the point where they expect to have a strong contending team every year.
The Orioles still are in position to reach the playoffs this season, but a lot of things that haven't gone right so far will have to go right for them to morph into a team that can get to the postseason and make another deep run.
"I can tell you this," Showalter said. "It's a lot more fun the way we do it. If you try to get something that everybody thinks is a bird in the hand, there isn't anybody in baseball who doesn't have a dent in their armor. Everything that glitters is not gold. I like where we are. I like how we're doing it."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.