Late additions could boost Orioles in wide-open American League East race

Free-agent signings Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz expected to fill major roles this season

March 28, 2014|By Eduardo A. Encina | The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — As Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette sat in his office at the Ed Smith Stadium complex on a sunny afternoon earlier this month, overlooking a well-manicured cloverleaf of fields, a bitter winter seemed like an eternity ago in more ways than one.

Duquette and the Orioles went through a relatively stagnant offseason that left fans frustrated and experts predicting a fifth-place finish in the American League East. He had to defend the lack of moves as recently as the first day of February at the team's FanFest event, promising that the Orioles wouldn't go into Opening Day without improving the club.

That's all changed.

"What did I tell you all winter?" Duquette said with a smirk, leaning back in his chair and putting his hands behind his head. "That we were going to sign some guys. We signed them."

Early in the offseason, with other teams spending large amounts of money in free agency, the Orioles didn't have the means to play at the same high-limit poker table as others. While the division-rival New York Yankees spent $465 million this winter, Duquette stood against the figurative wall and waited for a cheaper card game.

That opportunity came after the Orioles arrived in Florida for spring training.

They signed 27-year-old South Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon, one of the youngest pitchers available, to a three-year, $5.575 million deal. And then they hit a sleeping fan base with a one-two punch that revitalized optimism in Baltimore, signing right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to a club-record four-year, $50 million deal and then adding outfielder Nelson Cruz on a one-year, $8 million contract.

The successive moves, coming after the Orioles had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1996 and 1997, put the club back into the discussion of contending teams in the division.

"Every day in the American League East is a challenge," Duquette said. "And whenever those clubs were adding to their teams, it reminds you that you have to build your team to compete with them. So we had a good idea of what our shopping list was, we just were unable to execute our plan until later in the signing season."

It seems like a record on repeat, but the AL East could be as competitive as ever in 2014, and the burning question is whether the Orioles have done enough to return to the playoffs.

"The Yankees went out and spent a lot of money this winter," Duquette said. "The [Boston] Red Sox had a good farm system and a lot of players returning from a championship team. [The] Tampa Bay [Rays are] always good. They're always trading and doing what they can to be competitive, and so are the [Toronto] Blue Jays. Four of the five teams made the playoffs over the past two years."

In each of the past seven seasons, the AL East has sent two teams to the postseason. And in three of the past four years, a team with at least 89 wins has placed third and missed the playoffs.

"It's really thick," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said of this year's division race. "It really is a coin flip on how this thing is going to shake out."

Because of the second-year qualifying offer process, a boisterous free-agent market remained in February. And because of Duquette's willingness to part with draft picks needed to sign top free agents like Jimenez and Cruz, he was able to acquire both on deals that were viewed as below-market value.

The Orioles forfeited their first-round pick to sign Jimenez and gave up their second-round selection to place the power-hitting Cruz in the middle of an already dangerous lineup.

"We don't set the market," Duquette said. "We participate in the market. We knew what was on our shopping list. We knew what players we liked. We were able to get a deal with Jimenez. And once we got a deal with Jimenez, that opened up the opportunity to sign Cruz. If we didn't sign Jimenez, we weren't prepared to give up a No. 1 pick for Cruz.

"I didn't know what the market was going to be, but I knew the players we liked, and I knew what our available resources were. We tried early on in the process. Those opportunities weren't available to us early in the process, but they were in February."

Hope, but questions remain

Although the Orioles traded closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in December, and a move to sign right-hander Grant Balfour fell through because of problems with his physical, players remained confident as the club prepared to start the season with much of the same roster that contended for a playoff spot until the final 10 days in 2013.

And the free-agent additions increased the club's positive outlook heading into this season.

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