Are the Orioles holding up the free-agent market?

The Baltimore Orioles, yes that team of plucky Buckle Up Birds, with the value-oriented approach to roster construction, may be the one team holding up the entire free-agent market. After Jason Heyward signed, it was supposed to signal an opening of the floodgates for free-agent hitters like Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, and Chris Davis. Heyward signed — crickets. Cespedes, Upton, Gordon, and Davis remain unsigned, and there has been very little active chatter surrounding their final landing spots.

There was one concrete offer to Davis, reportedly north of $150 million to re-sign with the Orioles. He elected to slow-play the Orioles. They elected to pull the offer off the table. But that offer was out there, and everyone knows it. The agents for Cespedes, Upton, and Gordon know it. Everyone knows the Orioles potentially have a willingness to spend big and a large black hole of offensive production in right field. Davis waits, the outfielders wait, and the rest of the league waits. Each of the free agent outfielders would fit well into the Baltimore lineup, and could be had at a lower cost than the team’s initial offer to Davis.

No one actually knows how the Orioles intend to reallocate the $150 million offered to Davis if the two sides are truly at an impasse. As the offseason drags on and no real suitor for Davis emerges, it does seem more and more likely that the Orioles and Scott Boras will iron out a deal to bring the big slugger back to Baltimore. Peter Angelos likes Davis and wants him back. Davis did not necessarily scoff at the first nine-figure contract offer in Orioles’ team history. Rather, he just felt another team would get involved in the bidding to help drive up the price or the duration. Boras was not about to let Davis become the first big free-agent hitter to come off the table. To get top dollar for a player like Davis, more than one team needs to step up. It’s quite evident no one else is going to do that. Anyone who signs Davis will do so only after the Orioles have completely backed away from him. He will not get an offer greater than the initial offer should he spurn the Orioles. Have the Orioles reconsidered their initial aggressive pursuit of Davis? Will that money be more effectively spent on a lesser outfielder like Gordon and a mid-tier starting pitcher like Yovani Gallardo? That seems reasonable.

Until the Orioles make their intentions clear, the free-agent market should stay at a standstill. They will be used as a bargaining chip for the agents of the remaining outfielders. If they re-sign Davis, the Orioles will help to set the market for a player like Justin Upton. The Orioles are in control of the league right now, a position in which they rarely find themselves, especially in the offseason. That power must be used wisely, and the front office must remain patient while keeping all options open. When things break with the remaining hitters on the market, they will break quite quickly. Baltimore cannot be left on the outside looking in.

The Orioles are committed to raising payroll, something they actually have done each of the past four years. The rest of the league and the remaining free agents just don’t know how exactly the front office plans to accomplish the joyful task of spending Mr. Angelos’ money. Until there is some clarity to the offseason plan in Baltimore, expect the Hot Stove to stay relatively lukewarm.

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