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Schmuck: Dexter Fowler foul-up caps a strange few days for Orioles

Imagine everyone's shock and surprise Thursday when Twitter blew up with photos of Dexter Fowler in camp with the Chicago Cubs, and an official announcement that he had signed a one-year deal (with an option) to return to the club after rejecting its qualifying offer in November and agreeing to terms with the Orioles. How strange is this? Well, not much stranger than all the machinations surrounding the Orioles' agreement with free-agent pitcher Yovani Gallardo.

If Yogi Berra were alive today, he would have something very relevant to say about the Orioles' supposedly successful bid to sign free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler.

It really wasn't over until it was over, though his three-year, $33 million contract with the Orioles was reported widely and confirmed — at least by The Baltimore Sun — by someone at a very high level in the team's hierarchy.

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So, imagine everyone's shock and surprise when Twitter blew up with photos of Fowler in camp with the Chicago Cubs, as well as an official announcement that he had signed a one-year contract (with an option) to return to the club after rejecting a much higher qualifying offer in November. Obviously, you don't often see a player choose the deal worth $20 million less.

How strange is this? Well, not much stranger than all the machinations surrounding the Orioles' agreement with free-agent pitcher Yovani Gallardo, which was on again, off again and then finally confirmed Thursday morning. The press room at the Ed Smith Stadium complex was set up for a televised Gallardo news conference all day long, and imagine everyone's relief when he actually showed up for it.

It's been that kind of week.

Things got even more weird when Fowler's agent, Casey Close, sent out a statement Thursday blasting the Orioles and the media for indicating Tuesday that the Orioles deal was complete, using the words "irresponsible," "reckless" and "reprehensible" while never mentioning that he had nearly two full days to publicly refute the reports and that Fowler had told Orioles star Adam Jones on Wednesday that he was "excited" about becoming an Oriole.

Not really sure what the point of that was, unless it was to draw attention away from the fact that Close let his client turn down $15.8 million from the Cubs in November and came back in February to accept about half that in salary plus an option/buyout that guaranteed $5 million more.

"If the player chooses to take less money to go to another team, that's their choice,'' said Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, "… What's he going to say now, that it's not about the money?"

Here's what happened. The Orioles had been engaged in a rather unusual negotiation with the Fowler camp — unusual because the player actually was seeking a shorter contract than the Orioles wanted to give him.

That's one of the unintended consequences of the qualifying offer system. Players who reject a qualifying offer and do not get much interest on the free-agent market now prefer to sign a one-year deal or a multiyear contract with an early opt-out clause.

The opt-out clause was the issue here. Duquette has made it clear throughout the offseason that the Orioles will not give any player the chance to opt out of a contract that includes additional guaranteed years because of how dramatically that alters the risk/reward equation for the team.

"We made it clear that type of deal wasn't going to work for us," Duquette said Thursday. "Based on that, it sounds to me like he wanted to return to Chicago."

When Duquette was pressed on whether he felt the Orioles had a deal when it was reported Tuesday night, he would say only that he didn't know Fowler was headed back to Chicago until Thursday morning.

"We made a very competitive offer," Duquette said. "There was not an agreement to terms because they kept insisting on an opt-out, and I don't see, club ownership doesn't see, the value of that type of arrangement to the Orioles. If we're going to guarantee a contract, then it should be a contract."

Fowler instead signed a deal with the Cubs that addressed the situation in a different way. He agreed to a one-year deal with a mutual option for the 2017 season, which allows either side to opt out after this season.

The Orioles might have been willing to structure the contract that way if they weren't going to be on the hook for a high pick in the June draft. They made that sacrifice when they signed Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal that was the free-agent bargain of the 2014 season, and it turned out to be a terrific deal for the team.

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Trouble is, there are only so many times a team can justify sacrificing the future for the chance to win now. Cruz had an MVP-caliber season, and the Orioles went to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1997. It was well worth the draft pick, and would have been even more so if they hadn't balked at giving him a four-year contract when he returned to the free-agent market at the end of the 2014 season.

Based on Fowler's comments Thursday at the Cubs training facility in Arizona, he seemed to be having second thoughts about leaving the Cubs in the first place. He said he decided to go back to "what's comfortable," which would indicate he might have gotten cold feet after coming very close to a deal with the Orioles.

There's no reason for the Orioles to be embarrassed about this strange reversal. They've spent a ton of money to put themselves in position to get back to the postseason in 2016 and added a major piece to that competitive puzzle with the signing of Gallardo at a bargain price.

What made it all seem so weird is the way the two situations developed almost simultaneously, with the Orioles balking at Gallardo's physical for several days before renegotiating his new deal down to a two-year guarantee.

The Orioles were questioned and criticized in the national media for putting a durable pitcher through such a strict physical evaluation, but Duquette ended up getting a better deal for the club after its medical staff got a closer look at Gallardo's right shoulder.

Everybody knows the Orioles are sticklers for the medicals, and they have saved a ton of dead money by passing on several free agents who vindicated that abundance of caution.

No doubt, there are going to be some who suspect it was some kind of Machiavellian plot by the Orioles to shave a guaranteed year off Gallardo's original deal, but — as odd as it seemed — it was really just business as usual.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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