DALLAS — While Orioles baseball operations chief Dan Duquette continued working to complete a pair of pending deals on the third day of baseball's Winter Meetings, the Miami Marlins continued a spending spree that reached $191 million for free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell.
Which leaves fans in Baltimore to ponder the fact that if Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria had been willing to go that high in 1993, he might own the Orioles right now.
Lest anyone forget, Loria was the last guy bidding against a group headed by Peter Angelos when the Orioles were put up for auction in a bankruptcy proceeding. The final sales price was $173 million — the most paid for a major league franchise to that point — which seems quaint now that the game's top players are commanding more than that for a single long-term contract.
It's pretty obvious which franchise is better off at the moment, but Duquette seemed bemused when asked for his reaction to the medium-market Marlins' aggressively positioning themselves as the marquee team at this year's sign-and-swap festival.
"I'm not sure that's a terrific distinction to be the team of the year in December," Duquette said. "It's more appropriate when you get to October, right?"
That is right, but different teams go about getting there in different ways. The Marlins have won a pair of world titles over the past 15 years, first by temporarily running up the payroll in 1997 and six years later when several terrific young pitchers bloomed at the same time.
This offseason, it's pretty obvious that Loria is willing to spend whatever it takes to put the franchise's third championship team into the Marlins' brand-new stadium. The Orioles, meanwhile, have been stuck in a long-term rebuilding program that has yet to raise them off the floor in the American League East.
Duquette has arrived with a plan he hopes will change that. He even went so far Tuesday as to state that the short-term goal of the franchise was to field a .500-or-better team this coming year, which will be no easy task in one of the game's toughest divisions.
That should be heartening to fans who grew weary of the diminished expectations of the early MacPhail years, but they're going to be understandably skeptical as long as the Orioles continue to demonstrate that they are not willing to spend enough money to attract top-flight talent.
Clearly, the hiring of Duquette has created a unique dynamic that leaves him deserving the chance to build the team on his own terms without regard to the organization's sorry recent history but also leaves the fans with every right to expect a greater financial commitment from ownership.
How is it, they rightly wonder, that the Washington Nationals can sign Jayson Werth to a huge contract last year and make a strong bid for free-agent pitcher Buehrle while receiving a much smaller cut of the revenues than the Orioles from their joint partnership in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network?
Which brings us to the point where Duquette has to walk a public relations tightrope, since it's pretty evident that the Orioles are not involved in the bidding for top free agents Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or C.J. Wilson and aren't exactly flush with prospects to trade for quality talent.
Duquette seems intent on doing everything in his power to lift the Orioles above sea level, but he bristled a bit at a series of questions Wednesday aimed at determining just what kind of player budget he will be working with over the two months leading up to spring training.
"It doesn't matter what the budget is," Duquette said. "It doesn't matter to the fans. They're interested in seeing the product. They're interested in seeing the players, and our job is to put together the best team we can within the constraints of the market. So you're not going to hear me talk about the budget or numbers because — to me — it's not important to the fans. They want to see a good product."
There is probably some wishful thinking in there … and maybe a little hubris. Duquette said the budget is sufficient to field a competitive team, and since he isn't going to reveal any particulars, we're left to take him at his word. But the fans have spent a lot of time, money and emotion over the past 14 years on a bad product, so it would be comforting for them to know that ownership has truly given the new front office the wherewithal to build a winner.
Duquette likes to say that "the proof is in the pudding," so I guess we'll just have to wait to find out.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal.com.
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