Say this for the Orioles — no one can accuse them of tanking.
They’re close to forfeiting the No. 14 pick in the draft and accompanying pool money for free-agent right-hander Yovani Gallardo, according to major-league sources. They might follow that by sacrificing the No. 29 pick (currently) for free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler.
The two moves in combination would mark the second time in three years that Orioles general manager Dan Duquette parted with a pair of draft picks to sign a pair of free agents after Feb. 1. And while it would be undeniably risky for the O’s to give up two top-30 selections when their farm system is universally regarded as one of the game’s worst, they still would hold four draft choices in the top 100, somewhere between No. 51 and 90. And if they were smart, they would replace the lost selections by signing international free agents — assuming, of course, that they were willing to spend more money.
Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron wrote Wednesday about the logic of the Orioles forfeiting their second pick for Fowler on top of their first for Gallardo. The key to such a strategy would be signing Gallardo and Fowler at discounted rates — Gallardo for perhaps three years and $40 million, Fowler for perhaps two years and $25 million.
Think back to 2014, when the Orioles sacrificed the No. 17 pick while signing right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract, and the No. 55 pick while signing outfielder Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal.
The Cruz contract proved one of the bigger bargains in recent memory — he hit 40 homers in ’14, helping the Orioles reach the American League Championship Series. Even the Jimenez contract still might turn out favorably for the club — he rebounded from an awful ’14 to throw 184 innings last season and finish with a 4.11 ERA.
What exactly did the Orioles lose for those players? Both the Rangers and Indians used their compensation picks on high school pitchers, with the Indians taking left-hander Justus Sheffield at No. 31 and the Rangers taking right-hander Luis Ortiz at No. 30 (the Orioles, remember, would have selected at No. 55 if they had not signed Cruz).
Both pitchers now rate as the No. 4 prospects in their respective organizations, according to Baseball America. But both are expected to start the season in high Class A. Neither is a sure thing, in other words. And neither will help their respective clubs anytime soon.
The problem for the Orioles is that if they continue to swap out picks and prospects, they eventually might crash. Owner Peter Angelos turns 87 on July 4, so the team’s win-now strategy is understandable. But the O’s already have been burned by their trade of Jake Arrieta, and soon could be burned by their trades of top pitching prospects Eduardo Rodriguez and Josh Hader, too.
The flip side: Another postseason run would satisfy most fans, and the additions of Gallardo and Fowler almost certainly would help push the Orioles toward that goal.
Gallardo compares favorably in almost every category to right-hander Ian Kennedy, who signed a five-year, $70 million, free-agent contract with the Royals — Gallardo is a year younger, his opponents’ OPS, FIP and ERA over the past three seasons are all lower.
Kennedy holds one advantage, and it’s a big one in the way front offices now value pitchers — his strikeout rate has increased in each of the past three years, while Gallardo’s has declined markedly. Then again, if the difference between the two indeed proves to be $30 million, Gallardo starts to look a lot more attractive (Kennedy also has an opt-out clause after two years).
Fowler, like Gallardo, is less than a star. But for the Orioles, who need a right fielder and leadoff man, a switch-hitter with a career .363 on-base percentage would be an excellent fit.
Some teams do not like Fowler’s defense in center, but the Orioles would need him at that position only if they lost Adam Jones to an injury (they currently do not have other alternatives).
Offensively, Fowler has been above-average in each of the past five seasons when adjusting his OPS to his league and ballpark. And an Orioles lineup with Manny Machado, Jones and Chris Davis in the 2-3-4 spots would benefit significantly from the addition of an on-base specialist at the top.
Still, if the Orioles sign both Gallardo and Fowler, they cannot stop there. Duquette must address the farm system, and the international market — Latin America, in particular — would offer him a chance to recoup the talent that he would lose in the draft.
Another option, long term, would be to replenish through trades — closer Zach Britton, if he enjoys another big season, would be one candidate to move. Britton will earn $6.75 million this season, with two years of club control remaining after that.
The O’s can’t be accused of tanking. They can’t be accused of overvaluing prospects. But at some point, they will need to repair their farm system, and for too long they have been only minor players in Latin America.