With a down economy, multiple teams crying poor and little money invested in future payrolls, the Orioles are perhaps in a better financial position this offseason than they have been in more than a decade.
As free agency begins today, the Orioles have just $29.5 million dedicated to six players for next season. With salary arbitration and standard renewals, their 2010 payroll would fall somewhere around $45 million.
Simply put, if the Orioles want to be buyers this winter, they're in a good spot.
"It's the fun part of the job. This is the time for us to go up and hit," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "Last year, we made a couple of trades, we signed five free agents. We were pretty active. Numerically, I think we'll be more active dollar-wise than we were last year. We're organized, we have our targets that we're going to go after, and we'll see how it goes and how the market unfolds."
The Orioles' needs are well-documented. They are looking to add a veteran starting pitcher and bolster the back end of their bullpen. They need a middle-of-the-order hitter and have vacancies at first base and third base. The Orioles also will try to find a backup catcher and upgrade the rest of their bench.
MacPhail's task is made more difficult by a mediocre free-agent class, the Orioles' last-place finish in the American League East and a string of 12 straight losing seasons.
Even with a willingness to spend, the Orioles are a long shot to sign any of the marquee free agents. Barring a change of organizational plans, they will not bid on power-hitting outfielders Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. The Orioles have contacted the agents of third baseman Chone Figgins and pitcher John Lackey, but both will have their share of suitors, even in a market that is expected to be short on big spenders.
"There are a few elite free-agent possibilities out there, and then I think there is a definite drop-off to the second tier," Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Certainly, you can tell the difference between the Lackeys of the world and the rest of the free-agent class. As far as the overall marketplace is concerned, it's a little too soon to see what direction it is going to go in."
Several teams, including the Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers, have said they don't expect to be very active in free agency, and it has been reported that the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds are in cost-cutting modes. Their respective GMs denied those reports, but there is a glut of free agents and few teams that have boasted of the financial flexibility to sign them.
"Within every market there will be efficiencies somewhere, and that's the same as this market. Somewhere there will be a good contract or two or three. The best position to be in is to have the resources to exploit those values," Indians GM Mark Shapiro said. "You never know until the market evolves and shows itself. I think there is still an economic reality for a lot of teams that is challenging. Not for every team, maybe, but for a lot of teams."
The Orioles, meanwhile, have contract commitments beyond next season to only three players - second baseman Brian Roberts, right fielder Nick Markakis and pitcher Brian Matusz, who signed a major league deal when he was drafted in 2008.
Aside from the combined $1.05 million option buyouts for Melvin Mora and Chad Moeller, the Orioles finally do not have any outstanding debts to former players, coaches or executives.
Other than their $20 million-plus bullpen spending spree in 2006-07, the last time the Orioles were major players in the free agent market was in 2003-04, when they spent more than $120 million in signing Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Sidney Ponson and Rafael Palmeiro.
But there remains some skepticism in Baltimore about whether owner Peter Angelos will be willing to put down the money required to entice quality free agents.
"I have met with Peter on several different occasions, going through the past season and how the offseason might line up," MacPhail said. "You have to be a little bit careful about what you say you're going to do because you don't really control 100 percent of the situation. The other side can determine that. I'm not a big one for making any grandiose statements, but suffice to say, I think we'll be active. There's no reason to be skeptical of ownership. He's done what management has asked him to do."
In some respects, MacPhail put the bull's-eye on himself on the final weekend of a 98-loss 2009 season when he announced that Dave Trembley's 2010 option would be picked up but that the manager would be judged by wins and losses going forward. With that declaration, MacPhail accepted the responsibility to get Trembley better players.
MacPhail will find a free-agent market that includes plenty of third base and closer options but one that is thin on impact hitters and reliable starting pitching.