Good things come to O's, who wait
Duquette's patience in market pays off with game-changing signings
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Regardless of the circumstances of how it came about, it can now be said that Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette played the free-agent market just right.
With the signings in the last week of outfielder Nelson Cruz and right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, Duquette didn't dive into the market as much as he let it come to him.
Duquette took guff during the offseason from some Baltimore fans and members of the media, but in the end, he signed Cruz for one year at $8 million and Jimenez for four years at $50 million, with $2.25 million annually of that money deferred.
"If you sign somebody in November or February, it's still the same when April gets here," said O's manager Buck Showalter hours after he, Cruz and Duquette met with the media. "[The players] know that all this will pass and you're going to end up with 25 players getting on a plane. We have 61 players here. That means there are a lot of tough conversations I have to have with players before the end of the spring. There will be one, maybe two, that I'll get to tell they made the club."
Those decisions became a lot harder for the Birds' brass after the events of the last week. Duquette acknowledged in a one-on-one interview these two deals couldn't have been made before the turn of the new year. When asked if he was tired of criticism about the offseason pace of improving the team, Duquette burst into laughter.
After all, this is a man who worked as general manager for the Red Sox around the turn of the 21st century and never has received enough credit for the building of both the 2004 and '07 World Series championship teams. Those clubs won with players Duquette put on the Major League roster or were acquired by later management with the prospects he signed and drafted.
Before Duquette was replaced by the young Theo Epstein, he was heavily criticized by Boston fans and the media. So during this past offseason in Baltimore, the living was relatively easy.
"Timing in life is everything," Duquette said. "It would've been nice if we were able to get these deals done in December, because then everyone would have been saying that the Orioles are addressing their needs, that they're trying to remain competitive in the American League East, that they're trying to win the pennant. We weren't able to get these deals in December, but by waiting, we got good, solid deals for the team and the city of Baltimore. We got some really good players."
Truth be told, the market for front-line starting pitching was skewed by the late posting of Masahiro Tanaka, who didn't sign his seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees until Jan. 22. After that, whether tied to Draft-pick compensation or not, the big arms started signing: Matt Garza with the Brewers, Bronson Arroyo with the D-backs, and last week Ubaldo came to terms with the Orioles. Only Ervin Santana still remains out there, and it's safe to say he will sign somewhere before the end of Spring Training.
Garza, Jimenez, Santana and Cruz were among 13 players tendered $14.1 million qualifying offers by their old clubs after the 2013 season. All 13 turned those offers down, meaning Draft-pick compensation was tied to each of the new teams signing those particular free agents.
With the signing of Cruz, as of now, Santana, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales are the only players on that list still unsigned.
The Orioles looked at Cruz as far back as December, but the early asking price from his camp was in the range of four years, $60 million, Duquette said. Since it was also tied to the Orioles having to forgo their first-round Draft pick, at that time the price seemed too steep.
But circumstances change. The Orioles gave up their first- and second-round picks to sign Jimenez and Cruz, who was one of the players suspended for 50 games last season because of his involvement in the Biogenesis investigation.
"We were following the market on [Cruz] as far back as December," Duquette said. "We had to give up our first-round pick for [Jimenez], but given the term of the contract, his age , and our need for starting pitching, we thought it was a reasonable trade off. There were some unique circumstances surrounding [Cruz]. I don't think the club would've been in a position to sign him if we had to give up a No. 1 pick. But once we signed the pitcher, I think [the No. 2 pick] was a more reasonable consideration for the team."
Duquette sent his Round A competitive-balance pick between the first and second rounds to Houston last season in the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline deal for pitcher Bud Norris. So this year, that means the Orioles will not have a pick in the First-Year Player Draft until the third round.
More significantly to Orioles fans, that also means that this year, the O's are all in as they try to take first place in the AL East, get back to the playoffs and win the World Series. Right now, the future is on hold. Duquette is operating on the presumption that the window to accomplish all this is wide open. He's only too aware how quickly that window can slam shut in professional sports.
"We are more focused on having a solid, competitive team this year," Duquette said. "We think we have the core group of players returning and a solid foundation to be competitive. Let's face it, the AL East is a tough division."
And Dan Duquette is a tough operator. When all is said and done, he allowed the market to come to him.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.