The Orioles have money to spend — perhaps as much as $17 million for this upcoming season — and are still looking to do so, according to the club's top executive.
Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155 million deal with the New York Yankees on Wednesday, as the free agent market appeared to open for a second act.
The ongoing negotiations with Tanaka — which did not include the Orioles, who never agreed to pay the $20 million posting fee to talk with him — seemingly had held free agency hostage after a flurry of activity in early December.
"The market was frozen for a while," said Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette. "But things are starting to move again. We'll have to see how the market develops, but we've been talking to some other pitchers."
Duquette again stressed that adding starting pitching remains his top priority, and he said the club's 2014 payroll may still reach $100 million. It was approximately $92 million to start the 2013 season; it's now estimated at $82 to $83 million with roughly two months and a week to go before Opening Day.
"We have resources to extend our payroll. Our payroll is going to be closer to $100 million this year," Duquette said. "Having said that, we are going to need to work internally with our young pitchers to bring them along."
Duquette continued: "This year, if you said $100 [million] that would be reasonable. I think over the course of four years, we have been expanding our payroll. But we are going to stay within the resources of the market."
There are currently five starting pitchers, all right-handers, who are considered the best available: Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett.
Burnett might be the most intriguing to the Orioles because he lives in Monkton, wants to spend more time with his family and, at age 37, would not be looking for a long-term deal. But Burnett hasn't given any indication whether he wants to pitch again or simply will retire.
Arroyo, who will be 37 in February, seems like the best fit since he is an established innings-eater who will not require a commitment beyond three years. But that third year has been a sticking point with the Orioles, who have had ongoing discussions with Arroyo's agent.
Garza is widely considered the most talented of the group, but he also likely will be the most expensive and almost certainly will command a contract of at least four years — something the Orioles have never given to a free agent pitcher.
Jimenez and Santana also are expected to receive lucrative, multi-year deals and comes with an added burden — whoever signs them must forfeit a draft pick. In the Orioles' case, it would cost them the 17th overall pick next year.
That's something Duquette said he could live with, if it is the right situation. But he said his philosophy hasn't changed on that, even though several players attached to draft picks are still unsigned.
"We would take a look at that if it makes sense for us," Duquette said. "The first-round pick and the talent [you'd have to give up] is one part of the equation. The talent of the player we signed is another, and what we'd have to pay him, that's the third part of the equation. But we could take a look at that."
With the signing of Tanaka, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season, the Yankees now have eight players with a 2014 salary of at least $15 million (nine counting the suspended Alex Rodriguez). The rest of the American League East has just five total; the Orioles have one, right fielder Nick Markakis.
Furthermore, the Yankees have signed five players this offseason — Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Hiroki Kuroda, who re-signed — for a combined $91 million in 2014 salary. That's more than the Orioles' current payroll.
Duquette is unfazed.
"That's the Yankees," he said. "I like to focus on the people we have. And we do have some young pitchers that are going to develop into good major leaguers."
He then named prospects such as Eduardo Rodriguez, Tim Berry, Mike Wright, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy as examples of pitchers that can help the Orioles take the next step without going outside of the organization.
"The only way we are really going to be able to compete is if we bring up a steady stream of players through our farm system," Duquette said. "We have some young players in our farm system that I think will come up and contribute to our team this year."