In the Andy MacPhail era, which is marking its fourth offseason this winter, the Orioles have never been a major player in free agency, preferring to give shorter, more conservative contracts to role players and former stars looking for resurgence.
The largest free-agent deal the Orioles have doled out since MacPhail took over as president of baseball operations in June 2007 was the two-year, $12 million contract signed by reliever Michael Gonzalez last winter.
This offseason, that philosophy could change, albeit slightly, because MacPhail and the Orioles are searching for a legitimate power bat — and that could be pricey. The Orioles finished second to last in the American League in runs scored and 11th of 14 in the AL in homers this year; only Luke Scott and pending free agent Ty Wigginton had more than 20.
"We haven't made any secret of the fact that we think we need to address the middle of the order, and that's a hard thing to do," MacPhail said. "We believe that it would be a great benefit, not just adding that four-hole bat to the lineup, but also to the rest of the hitters around the lineup. … All those guys are going to benefit from a meaningful bat in the lineup, so that is something that we are going to have to pursue this offseason."
New manager Buck Showalter will certainly have a say as to what moves are made this winter, but he's not tipping his hand, saying only that he and MacPhail continue to talk and are "on the same page."
This year's free-agent class is considered top-heavy, with three headliners: Texas Rangers left-hander Cliff Lee and outfielders Carl Crawford of the Tampa Bay Rays and Jayson Werth of the Philadelphia Phillies. All three intrigue the Orioles but aren't realistic targets for a perennially struggling club stuck in the American League East. The trio will have plenty of suitors with deep pockets and immediate playoff aspirations.
The other free agents available in 2011 are a solid, yet flawed bunch. The good news for the Orioles, however, is that the deepest subset of this class is at corner infielder, which is where the club has its biggest hole.
Rookie third baseman Josh Bell was given an extended look and doesn't appear to be ready for a regular role in 2011. Rookie first baseman Brandon Snyder had a few bright moments during his September call-up, but he is targeted to start next year at Triple-A.
Wigginton, who has played first, second and third this season, is a free agent, and though both sides would be amenable to the right deal, he likely will test the market while the Orioles examine their options.
MacPhail won't reveal his specific free-agent wish list, saying he'll "leave that to the variety of talking heads that we have covering our sport."
But it's likely the Orioles will set their sights among a group that includes first basemen Adam Dunn of the Washington Nationals, the Boston Red Sox's Victor Martinez, Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena and the Atlanta Braves' Derrek Lee as well as Boston third baseman Adrian Beltre and perhaps Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge.
Unlike last winter, when the Orioles didn't heavily pursue free-agent slugger Matt Holliday because they felt they were set in left field with Nolan Reimold and/or Felix Pie, the team has not ruled out signing a power-hitting outfielder this offseason because of Reimold's struggles and Pie's injury concerns.
However, aside from Crawford and Werth, the free-agent outfield class is exceptionally thin. Given that Beltre wasn't interested in the Orioles when he was a free agent last year and Inge is expected to stay in Detroit, if the Orioles land a power bat, it likely will be at first base.
Dunn probably will demand the largest deal of the first basemen, though Martinez's ability to catch and play first makes him highly coveted, if he doesn't re-sign with the Red Sox. In the past, the Orioles have pursued Konerko, Pena and Lee, so they likely will be in the picture again.
The Orioles also are expected to shop for a starting shortstop, but the options are severely limited. The top potential free agent is Alex Gonzalez, whom the Braves could retain by exercising a $2.5 million team option for 2011.
The Minnesota Twins' J.J. Hardy and Tampa Bay's Jason Bartlett are facing arbitration and could be nontendered, and Jhonny Peralta's $7.25 million option might not be picked up by the Tigers, which would make him a free agent. But the Orioles might simply choose to re-sign pending free agent Cesar Izturis, a strong defender and respected leader who is an offensive liability.
MacPhail said he would also like to pick up a veteran innings-eater, via free agency or trade, to complement a young rotation. He did that last season when he dealt reliever Chris Ray to the Rangers for Kevin Millwood, who is a pending free agent and likely will not re-sign.
"I think it would be preferable," MacPhail said. "We'll just have to see what's available. But I think it would be something that's desirable. Even though that younger group is growing, you just never have enough pitching."
A closer look at potential targets
Once again, the Orioles will be connected to a bevy of free agents this offseason. They have several roster holes, few long-term commitments and the hope that they can build on their late-season surge. So the Orioles are ripe for free-agent rumors. Although team officials won't publicize their specific intentions, here's a list of 10 free-agent targets based on need and fit.
Excluded are big-money free agents at positions the Orioles don't view as top priority (such as closer Rafael Soriano or outfielders Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth) or players who have club options for 2011 (such as shortstops Alex Gonzalez and Jhonny Peralta) or potential trade targets (Prince Fielder). Players are listed alphabetically.
3B Adrian Beltre, Boston Red Sox
Key 2010 stats: .321 avg., 28 HRs, 102 RBIs, .365 OBP, 49 doubles
Skinny: Beltre is the best third baseman on the market, and the Orioles desperately need one, so he has to be on this list. But last offseason, he made it known he had no interest in coming to the Orioles. It's hard to imagine that's changed now that Beltre has significant negotiating leverage. Beltre does have a player's option, but he and his agent, Scott Boras, surely will test the market.
1B Adam Dunn, Washington Nationals
Key 2010 stats: .260 avg., 38 HRs, 103 RBIs, .356 OBP, 199 strikeouts
Skinny: The hulking Dunn is the top free-agent power source. He has hit 38 or more homers in his past seven seasons and driven in 100 or more runs in six of those. A defensive liability, he doesn't want to be a full-time designated hitter. He might choose to stay in the NL to guarantee he plays first base. Some see Dunn as a more celebrated and costlier version of Luke Scott.
3B Brandon Inge, Detroit Tigers
Key 2010 stats: .247 avg., 13 HRs, 70 RBIs, .321 OBP, .977 fielding percentage
Skinny: Inge's power plunged after he hit 27 homers in 2009, but his average jumped from .230 last year. His strong defensive play and scrappy attitude increase his value. He likely will remain with the Tigers, who have offered a multiyear deal. Still, given the lack of third base options and Inge's Virginia roots, the Orioles would be intrigued if he were available.
1B Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox
Key 2010 stats: .312 avg., 39 HRs, 111 RBIs, .393 OBP, .977 on-base-plus-slugging
Skinny: The Orioles courted Konerko when he was a free agent after the 2005 season, offering him a more lucrative contract, but he stayed in Chicago. He would probably be at the top of the Orioles' wish list this offseason, considering his 2010 production and his reputation as a clubhouse presence. But he could remain with the White Sox, his club for the past 12 seasons.
LHP Cliff Lee, Texas Rangers
Key 2010 stats: 12-9, 3.18 ERA, 2121/3 innings, 185 strikeouts, 18 walks
Skinny: If the Orioles want to make a splash, this is the guy. He's a legitimate ace. He has surpassed 200 innings in five of his past six seasons and throws strikes — a perfect role model for young pitchers. But the Orioles would have to drastically overpay since everyone wants him, and even then he might not come here. He's probably done with pitching in hitters' parks in the AL.
1B Derrek Lee, Atlanta Braves
Key 2010 stats: .260 avg., 19 HRs, 80 RBIs, .347 OBP, 35 doubles
Skinny: In 2003, Lee visited Camden Yards in an attempt to sign a long-term deal before engineering a trade from the Florida Marlins. It collapsed, and Lee was shipped to Andy MacPhail's Chicago Cubs. Lee's still a solid defender and good citizen, but his best offensive days might be behind him, though he hit 35 homers in 2009. The Orioles will be involved here.
C-1B Victor Martinez, Boston Red Sox
Key 2010 stats: .302 avg., 20 HRs, 79 RBIs, .351 OBP, 493 at-bats
Skinny: Martinez might be the Orioles' No. 1 target. He's a proven run producer, switch-hitter and team leader. He would give the Orioles more flexibility late in games because he can switch from first base to catcher. The Red Sox, however, want him back, and he still wants to catch a lot. He failed to reach 500 at-bats for the second time in three years.
RHP Carl Pavano, Minnesota Twins
Key 2010 stats: 17-11, 3.75 ERA, 221 innings, 117 strikeouts, 37 walks
Skinny: No one could have imagined that after Pavano's disastrous stint with the New York Yankees he would emerge two years later as a team leader with the no-nonsense Twins. But the big right-hander has. He's not true ace material, but he is a 12-season veteran who has overcome adversity. Still, his price tag might exceed what the Orioles perceive he's worth.
1B Carlos Pena, Tampa Bay Rays
Key 2010 stats: .196 avg., 28 HRs, 84 RBIs, .325 OBP, .732 on-base-plus slugging
Skinny: At Christmastime 2006, Pena told his kids they were heading to Baltimore the next year. But the Orioles switched gears, re-signed Kevin Millar and signed Aubrey Huff, forcing Pena to sign a minor league deal with the Rays. It was a good move for him, but after batting under .200 in 2010, some wonder whether his power, glove and leadership make up for an inability to hit.
RHP Jake Westbrook, St. Louis Cardinals
Key 2010 stats: 10-11, 4.22 ERA, 2022/3 innings, 128 strikeouts, 68 walks
Skinny: Westbrook was a workhorse and innings-eater before 2008 elbow ligament-reconstruction surgery cost him nearly two seasons. He bounced back with more than 200 combined innings for the Cleveland Indians and Cardinals in 2010. A back-of-the-rotation starter these days, his experience and sinkerball could help the Orioles. The Cardinals want him back, though.
— Dan Connolly