SARASOTA, FLA. — If you want another indication of how the landscape has changed over the past month at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, consider the Orioles' Grapefruit League game against the Red Sox on Saturday afternoon.
It was just another exhibition game, or so it seemed. The Orioles play 30 of them and — for the most part — they don't generate a whole lot of buzz, unless a marquee player gets hurt or something really strange makes its way onto the SportsCenter rail.
Neither of those things happened on Saturday, but it was an afternoon on high alert after news started to trickle out that free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana had reduced his contract demands and was about to choose his new team from a very short list that included the Orioles.
Maybe a month ago, that wouldn't have raised an eyebrow around here, but the Orioles have spent the first three weeks of spring training in a free-agent frenzy that has garnered them veteran right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon, slugger Nelson Cruz and rehabbing two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.
Suddenly, anything seems possible, so the social media drumbeat that had Ervin Santana trying to decide whether to take a reported $14 million from the Toronto Blue Jays or a slightly lesser figure (plus incentives) from the Orioles could not be discounted. In fact, in the new world of Orioles high finance, he makes perfect sense.
Whereas the the Orioles signing five significant free agents and surrendering their top three draft choices seemed like a longshot of Powerball proportion as the club's frustrating offseason drew to a close, the possibilities created by the addition of another cornerstone starting pitcher were too intriguing to ignore.
Which is why that intrigue found its way inside the white lines during the Orioles' 7-3 victory, since starting pitcher Bud Norris would figure to be the guy most affected by the acquisition of another solid starter.
Norris took care of business. He worked three shutout innings, gave up just two hits and struck out four batters in his second scoreless outing of the exhibition season. He got strong reviews from manager Buck Showalter. He has pitched as well as anyone in the projected starting rotation, but still sits precariously in the fifth slot and could be the odd man out if the Orioles beef up the rotation again.
Presumably, if the Orioles are able to augment the rotation with a top-three pitcher, they would attempt to deal a surplus player to reduce payroll and acquire some minor league talent to make up for their draft losses. Norris, with his $5.3 million salary and two years remaining under club control, would seem like a logical choice.
He probably was unaware that the Santana situation was blowing up on Twitter, but it's not like being included in trade speculation would be anything new after dangling for weeks last season before the Orioles acquired him from the Houston Astros for L.J. Hoes, Josh Hader and a compensatorydraft pick.
"He's a pretty good commodity,'' Showalter said. "We like him. I'm sure he thought about it last year when his name was being bandied about to be traded. He knows it's part of what goes on … You could say the same thing about all of our pitchers, for that matter. Everybody thinks about how things like that affect people. I know we're not at that point where it's going to be a factor."
Regardless of the Santana situation, Norris' rotation status is not certain. He probably would start the season in the fifth slot, but there are just enough moving parts in the Orioles pitching staff to make him a darkhorse closer candidate.
That job appears to be Tommy Hunter's to lose and there's really no way to audition a closer in spring training, but there are three weeks left until Opening Day and — as previously stated — the Orioles are on something of a roll.
Whereas it seemed like nothing was possible four weeks ago, it now seems like nothing is out of the question.
There doesn't appear to be anything standing in the way of signing Santana, except convincing him to pick the Orioles over the Blue Jays. The club appears willing to spend the money, and the fact that they already have signed a pair of players who got qualifying offers means that the draft choice they would lose is of modest value.
Even if the Orioles miss on this deal, executive vice president Dan Duquette may not be finished trying to upgrade this roster. He claims he never is, and this probably would be the wrong time to doubt him.