Orioles' intentions hard to read

York Dispatch

In fairness to the Orioles, the first few weeks of the baseball offseason have not exactly been packed with hot-stove activity. The free agent market has remained quiet and trading activity has been predictably light.

Free-agent catcher Matt Wieters, above, and the Washington Nationals have an agreement in principle on a $10.5 million contract for 2017, pending a physical, according to a person familiar with the deal.

So, it's kind of hard to gauge just how "proactive" Dan Duquette and the Orioles front office have been thus far.

Really, the only member of the organization that has displayed any obvious proactivity is former free agent Matt Wieters, who stuck his finger in the wind and decided that the Orioles' $15.8 million qualifying offer was his best option this winter.

Wieters' decision made perfect sense under his particular circumstances and the Orioles — once they had extended the offer to protect their right to draft-choice compensation — had no choice but to go along for a very expensive ride. The only question now is whether that decision belongs in a broader context that should encourage the club to wade more aggressively into free agency.

Agent Scott Boras is no dummy and he's also no fan of a qualifying offer system that impedes his ability to auction his players on the open market. Duquette certainly isn't going to admit it, but he felt safe extending that offer because no one prior to this winter had accepted one and Boras had made it pretty clear that he wasn't interested in one-year deals for his high-value clients.

Remember, the word on the street was that Wieters probably could get a four-year deal worth more than $60 million, even though he had played sparingly the past two seasons because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction.

No one would be surprised if Boras was the one disseminating that information, but he figured out pretty quickly that the market was not strong for a guy who — even with that checkered recent medical history — would have been the most attractive free-agent player at his position.

Outfielder Colby Rasmus and pitcher Brett Anderson, each represented by different agents, also chose to take qualifying offers, so it's fair to assume that some pretty smart people are not expecting this winter to be a free-agent free-for-all.

That would be good news for the Orioles, who are believed to be seeking a front-line starting pitcher and a quality corner outfielder while trying to retain major league home run king Chris Davis. They just have to figure out whether it makes more sense to wait and see who falls through the cracks in the market or move aggressively to take advantage of any soft-market-driven free-agent insecurity.

We all know what Duquette has done in the past. He has had success waiting until the end of the offseason to make trades and sign free-agent leftovers. That worked fine in 2014 when he got Nelson Cruz for a song, but not so much last year when he let Cruz and Nick Markakis walk and couldn't find anyone to adequately replace them.

This offseason always figured to be problematic because of the number of free agents who might be headed out of town. It became more complicated when the Orioles stumbled back to .500 after three straight winning seasons.

Duquette knows that he has to find a way to improve a club that still is likely to lose its top power hitter, its most consistent starting pitcher (Wei-Yin Chen) and one of the best setup relievers in the game (Darren O'Day). He has known that for a long time, which is why he indicated on several occasions over the past few months that the Orioles would move aggressively to shore up the pitching staff and the outfield.

Maybe he has offers out all over the place, but there has been relatively little chatter about the Orioles other than rumored discussion with the Pittsburgh Pirates about a deal for second baseman Neil Walker. He's a serviceable player, but the Orioles already have an everyday second baseman and their recent history acquiring former first-round draft choices from the Pirates isn't exactly stellar.

There are plenty of quality players available if the Orioles are really interested in signing some, but it remains to be seen whether they'll hold back until somebody signs Davis to turn their full attention to improving in other areas.

If so, Orioles fans might be in for another off-putting offseason, because the free-agent market is probably going to take its sweet time to develop.