The Orioles' frustrating offseason got a little more frustrating Friday when the front office came up short in its pursuit of veteran pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who seemed to be the best fit of the remaining pitchers available in the free-agent market.
Maybe pursuit isn't the right word, since the Orioles still seem to be playing hard to get just a few days before before pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Executive vice president Dan Duquette continues to insist that he wants to solidify the starting rotation, but it's fair to wonder at this point just how much the team really wants to win this year.
Let's be honest: Most teams that are serious about contending for a playoff berth don't wait four months and come up a couple million bucks short of filling a role that club officials have identified from the start as key to a successful season. And, really, can it be so hard to sign a medium-priced pitcher?
No one is saying just how much more the Arizona Diamondbacks offered Arroyo, but the size of the contract that he accepted — reportedly $23.5 million over two years, with a club option for a third — was not out of line with what a pitcher of his caliber could be expected to command in the current market.
This has a chance to be one of those for-want-of-a-nail-the-kingdom-was-lost situations. If the Orioles end up falling short of the playoffs by a couple of games this season, it'll be easy to look back and see how shortsighted they were by not making a better play for a pitcher who, at a stage this late in the offseason, still offered just about everything the club was looking for.
Arroyo is no Clayton Kershaw, but he's a consistent, productive pitcher who has worked at least 199 innings in each of the past nine seasons. He's about to turn 37, but he still seemed like a reasonably safe play since he was willing to sign for just two years guaranteed.
Of course, no one should be surprised at this disturbing development in an offseason that has seen the Orioles trade closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for a song, pull out of a deal for replacement closer Grant Balfour and pack the spring roster to capacity with journeymen and minor league free agents. It probably seems like business as usual, but in the absense of a late deal for starter A.J. Burnett or one of the pitchers who require draft pick compensation, it may go down as the most damaging swings and misses of the winter.
Team owner Peter Angelos said recently that the Orioles are not in a position to compete on an economic level with baseball's big-revenue teams, and no one would dispute that. It's not unreasonable, however, for fans to expect them to compete on an economic level with the Milwaukee Brewers, who splurged for Matt Garza, or the Diamondbacks.
Duquette made it clear a week ago at FanFest that the organization is committed to building a playoff contender through player development and trades rather than an emphasis on big-money free agents, which would be a fine philosophy if it didn't sound a bit like he was already looking past this season.
That said, it's hard to fault Duquette after he and Buck Showalter pulled the franchise out of a 14-year ditch. He has made some smooth moves to help transform the Orioles into an attractive and entertaining team, and probably deserves more patience than he has been getting from fans and media this winter.
It just seems like he's playing a dangerous game and gambling with some of the goodwill that has been restored over the past two years.
The Orioles certainly could have afforded to pursue Arroyo more aggressively, but the fact that they're in the second week of February without a truly significant free-agent acquisition should tell you everything you need to know.