NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Listening to Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette at media briefings is always an exercise in reading between the lines.
He’s an old-school GM. He doesn’t like giving up specifics. But he also will provide some answers that can be helpful, can shed light on things, if you listen closely enough. I think he is genuine in his comments, even though they are often wrapped in a shroud of ambiguity.
I came into these meetings expecting the Orioles would shy away from big-ticket items and focus on improving the club in more inexpensive ways. Doesn’t take a genius to arrive at that conclusion, and that sense, for me, hasn’t changed.
It’s a philosophy the Orioles often employ, especially under Duquette, and especially early in the offseason. This year, that really seemed to be the situation — given that the Orioles are almost certainly going to set a franchise payroll record without adding major purchases.
But two Duquette quotes stuck with me a little bit Tuesday. And maybe give us a look into what the Orioles are planning this week and beyond.
This is what Duquette said when he first updated the media on his day.
“We’ve met with a couple teams today, explored a couple trade possibilities. We are still looking for an outfielder and a catcher. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re making progress. And then we also met with some agents looking for catchers and outfielders. And I think that market is slowing down a little bit on the hitters, especially the hitters that have a qualifying offer, so that’s going to take a little time, it looks like.”
And this is what he said about the free-agent market.
“Yeah, I wasn’t ready for the (free-agent) prices. Particularly in a couple of markets — extra outfielders — that market went up a lot. … I think that that’s going to have an impact on the trade market, yeah. Usually there’s more pitching available in the free agent market, but this year there’s not a lot of pitching, so the clubs are spending their money on other areas of their ballclubs. So, I’m not convinced the value is there in that market.”
My interpretation is this: The Orioles were hoping to fill their basic offensive holes with mid-level players, and now those players are more expensive than anticipated as teams ignore the free-agent pitching market, which we knew going in was subpar. And, so, the Orioles’ focus has shifted to making trades, something that may mean dealing from their lone strength: the bullpen. Duquette keeps saying he wants to keep the bullpen as a force, but he’s not flush with prospects elsewhere and he does have depth in his relief corps.
I think when push comes to shove, Duquette would deal a reliever – maybe a Brad Brach – if the player coming back is a left-handed outfielder with defensive and on-base skills.
Here’s what is most surprising to me, though: I figured the Orioles would be in decent shape in filling their needs this winter because they could look past starting pitching while other clubs overspent for mediocre rotation pieces.
And maybe that will still occur. But, right now, what the Orioles are encountering is that no one is hot on these back-end starters. No one. And those might be the guys who slip into January or February and are scooped up for a good value – which is a Duquette hallmark. But he has no place to put a cheap fourth starter in 2017.
His mention that the qualifying offer could slow down the market for certain players also makes it obvious that he’ll be playing the waiting game for the players that fit into that category; I’m sure he hopes Mark Trumbo ends up as one of those guys (I still believe a National League team is going to swoop in on him as a first baseman) or, wait for it, Edwin Encarnacion.
If the market is drying up because teams don’t want to give up a first-round draft pick in the last year of that compensation system, well, Duquette and Company would go to that familiar well one more time. There’s no doubt in my mind.
Bottom line with all of this:
So far, the winter meetings have been typically quiet for the Orioles. But it looks like there is an atypical reason for it.