Let the Free Agency begin

With free agency set to kick off officially at midnight, here’s a  refresher to get things going.

Unless something drastically changes in the next few hours, the Orioles will not negotiate to keep any of their seven free agents –Kevin Millwood, Corey Patterson, Koji Uehara, Ty Wigginton, Cesar Izturis, Julio Lugo and Mark Hendrickson— in the five-day exclusivity period. I’d imagine they will keep in contact with several of them, including the agents for Wigginton, Izturis and Uehara, all of whom could factor into the organization’s plans for next spring.

Here are a few quotes from my end-of-season interview with president of baseball operations  Andy MacPhail  followed by a list of players I think the Orioles should target. The list is more of an educated guess at this point and it should grow shorter as things get clearer throughout the winter. It’s not a wish list, which is why you won’t find a player like Cliff Lee on here. The Orioles are not signing Lee. Not only will he be engaged in a bidding war that the O’s will have a hard time keeping pace with (particularly with the Yankees in the mix) but it’s highly unlikely a guy like Lee -who is 32 years old–will commit to an organization that has had 13 consecutive losing seasons and is just moving out of the rebuilding phase.  

Also, MacPhail has made it pretty clear that priority No. 1 is the big bat, and that’s where the O’s will use their resources, whether it’s by a trade or free agency. Here are a few pertinent snippets from that interview, which I did as the season was winding down.

On their No. 1 goal…. “Well a middle of the lineup presence, probably is the easy to say, not so easy to do, I think that is going to be our chief goal in the offseason. Wherever that position is, that’s something we need to try to augment because I think it would have a beneficial effect up and down the lineup for some of our existing guys.”
Would the O’s look at another Garett Atkins-type gamble?” I think our preference always is the more established guy. Sometimes you have to deal with what the market makes available to you. But I think it’s always, sometimes you have to take a gamble when that looks like your best option. Hopefully there will be options available that are less risk than that one was.”
So what’s priority No. 2?… “You can always use more pitching. We will never turn down pitching. We made it no secret that pitching most likely is going to have to come up through our system because it is fragile and expensive through free agency and through trades. …So that’s something we continue to focus on in terms of our player procurement and development areas from amateurs on up. The pitching.”
The O’s did trade to get a pitcher in veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood. Could they pull a similar move again? … “We certainly could use [a Millwood-type]. You want to have an innings eater because you never know what to expect from the youngsters. So someone like that would certainly be attractive to us…Jeremy [Guthrie] has really, after having a rugged year last year, really pitched solid this year. And I do think not having to bear the No. 1 starter [label helped].”
On the disappointing development of prospects Brandon Snyder and Josh Bell enhancing the Os need to fill the corners from outside the organization“That’s something that’s going to be determined by the market as well. Who’s out there.  And how good do we think, and how much of an upgrade do you think it represents.
Again, we will see. We will see how that evolves. It’s a function of the market that’s available to us out there, and how those guys [in Bell and Snyder] perform. I don’t think we are in the business of just giving away jobs. We have to have some indication that they are capable of contributing.

*To recap, here is what we know: the Orioles need a bat. One who plays a corner infield spot would be even better. They’ll try to stay away from an Atkins-type gamble and they could use another Millwood-type starter, although it won’t be Millwood, who has made it no secret he will not be back, although his final few performances should be enough to land him a deal elsewhere.  Bell and Snyder, by most indications, will not be in the Orioles 2011 starting lineup, if with the big-league club at all. With just $28.7 million committed to next season, the O’s have money to spend.
*Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth are considered the other two prizes of this winter, and both will command serious money.  Werth has more pop as a middle-of-the-order bat, making him more of what the O’s need, but there is long list of teams that demand his services. Could either of them land in Baltimore?  There’s always a chance, but it’s far more likely the O’s will devote their time pursuing players such as Victor Martinez, Paul Konerko and Derrek Lee -all first base options along with Adam LaRoche, Lance Berkman and Carlos Pena. Adam Dunn has made it clear he would like to play the field and that’s another name to take into account. Beyond Adrian Beltre the third base market is thinner, which also makes resigning Wigginton an attractive possibility if the Orioles find a power bat at first.
*Predicting who might fill the veteran starter spot is trickier, particularly since the O’s acquired Millwood via trade and could pull of a similar move this winter.  Jon Garland and Brandon Webb are potential starters who could be nice fits in a thin class that drops off significantly after Lee. Veterans Hiroki Kuroda, Jake Westbrook and Javier Vazquez are also available. And yes, I’m aware of Vazquez’s flop in New York. The Orioles, like most Major League teams, could use some bullpen arms as well.
*Who will come to Baltimore? I’ve gotten a lot of questions about whether this guy or that guy would consider the Orioles and I think most free agents (particularly those who aren’t the top tier trio of Lee, Crawford and Werth) would come to Baltimore. Money talks and if the Orioles make a better offer than anyone else, it’d be hard for an agent to turn down for his client.
*Showalter said before the season ended that he had been approached by players on other teams who wanted to play for him. He has respect around the League and the O’s lack of depth should also be enticing in luring veterans here on Minor League deals because they know they have an easier path to the Majors than on team with deeper systems.
*Finally, there will be a lot of rumors flying around 24/7. For more instant updates, follow me on Twitter and keep checking back the blog. MLB.com also has a blog for all the Hot Stove action if you want to check that out as well.

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