SARASOTA, FLA. — Maybe Dan Duquette knew it all along, though if that were really the case, he isn't letting on.
It certainly appears that he played the new "qualified" free agent system like a Stradivarius to pick up solid starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz in a played-out market.
He waited and weathered a frustrating winter during which he appeared to be playing a dangerous game with the hard-earned loyalty of a once disaffected fan base. He spent three months looking like a guy with all the wrong phone numbers and listening to a steady drumbeat of media criticism.
So, did he or didn't he know that if he waited long enough he wouldn't have to chase the market, because the market would start chasing him?
"No, I didn't see that coming,'' Duquette said. "This is a new collective bargaining agreement. This is the first full year of the implementation, and I'm not sure people understood how the market was going to play out. I can't tell you we envisioned that the market would get to this point."
Not many did. Adam Katz, Cruz's agent, called it "a peculiar market," and it wasn't only because of the new system that diminished the bargaining power of free agents who got qualifying offers from their original teams.
The overall pitching market was stuck in neutral for much of the winter while many of the large-market teams competed for top Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
Duquette spent those months stockpiling unheralded minor league free agents and utility players while taking heat for trading Jim Johnson and pulling out of a deal with replacement closer Grant Balfour. If he was worried that he was going to pitch a shutout in his attempt to upgrade the starting rotation, manager Buck Showalter didn't sense it.
"There's always a sense of urgency," Showalter said, "but you've got to use some intelligence and let some things come to you. You're playing poker, and Dan will be the first to tell you that the fallback was pretty good.
"We liked what we had, so we had Plan A and Plan B, but you have to have the vision to see how things are going to play out and have the guts to not fold. We didn't think we were drawing to an inside straight. We thought we were holding pretty good cards."
Though there was plenty of negative chatter in the social media universe, Duquette said over the weekend that he was confident he would be able to make some moves and that he felt he had done a decent job last fall outlining the club's offseason strategy.
"Well, I try to lay out for the fans in a very clean, concise way, what the team is looking for in the offseason, and what the needs of the ballclub are,'' Duquette said. "So, it was clear what our shopping list was. The club is always working to build the roster, and sometimes the deals come together and sometimes they don't, but we had a very clear plan for the offseason to supplement our ballclub."
Duquette probably deserved more patience from the people who were questioning his seemingly too-patient approach. After all, he took over a franchise that was in the midst of a 14-season losing streak and presided over a playoff run in 2012 and another winning record last year.
"The other thing I tried to communicate directly to the fans was that we do have some young pitching that was developing, and I think that started to come out when these other publications started recognizing our prospects,'' Duquette said. "MLB.com … ESPN … Baseball America. We started doing better on their prospect lists as far as the depth of the talent and maturation of the farm system."
Still, Duquette was adamant as recently as Fanfest that the Orioles were going to remain committed to a player development approach and were not the kind of team that could become a perennial contender by competing with the big-market clubs for expensive free agents.
It seemed at the time like he was starting to look for some wiggle room in case he was unable to sign a significant free agent pitcher and a marquee bat. Now, it looks more like he was being coy and allowing the remaining free agents to sweat out the start of spring training.
Though the players union and some agents have expressed concern over the negative impact of the qualifying offer system on players such as Cruz and still-unsigned pitcher Ervin Santana, there seems to be universal agreement that Duquette and the Orioles front office have done a terrific job of exploiting it.
They say it's better to be lucky than good, but in this case, give the O's credit for being both. They played the market right and it fell in their direction. Duquette wouldn't disagree with that assessment, but he gives a lot of that credit to his staff.
"I'm talking about our baseball operations staff — the administration, the scouting and the people who help us on the acquisition side,'' he said. "They do a good job, knowing what type of player the Orioles like, and we're prepared. We do our due diligence on each of these players, and then we have an idea of what the economic impact would be in our market on each player that we evaluate.
"So, I think we have a good process. If we stick to our process and the discipline of our process, then we're going to find opportunities that fit into our market and, in this case, those opportunities didn't present themselves until recently."
Apparently, the waiting really was the hardest part.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.