O’s won’t let lost draft pick keep them from pursuing free agents

The Orioles need more pitching, even if it costs them a draft pick.

Jonathan Dyer/Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

SARASOTA, Fla. — Eureka! I finally have found a team willing to forfeit its precious draft pick and accompanying pool money for a compensation free agent.

That team is the Baltimore Orioles. While the O’s have yet to actually sign one of the Frozen Five, at least they are not acting as if all of them are suffering from the Ebola virus.

Well, at least not until the physical …

"I’ve said all along that we would take a look at it," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said Saturday.

"We do have a little bit better talent base in our organization. Our scouts have done a decent job recruiting internationally as well as domestically. With the maturity of our team, we have to take a look at it."

Darn right, they do.

The Orioles’ priority is a starting pitcher. They would lose the 17th pick for signing right-hander Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez, both free agents. But their position players are among the best in the game, and most are between the ages of 27 and 31.

Adding to the urgency: Two of the Orioles’ best players, first baseman Chris Davis and catcher Matt Wieters, are likely to become free agents after the 2015 season. Both are represented by Scott Boras, who prefers his clients to establish their values on the open market.

The Orioles simply cannot wait, and good for Duquette for owning up to it. Yes, he would have preferred to sign a non-compensation pitcher such as Bronson Arroyo or A.J. Burnett. But both had options outside of the hitter-happy American League East. Santana and Jimenez may not.

AROUND THE HORN

No team likes to lose draft picks, but Duquette already has compensated by adding talent through the international free-agent market – right-hander Miguel Gonzalez from Mexico, lefty Wei-Yin Chen from Taiwan, outfielder Henry Urrutia from Cuba and soon righty Suk-Min Yoon from Korea. 

Granted, none of those players was younger than 25 when he joined the Orioles. But none was subject to the limits on spending for domestic and international amateurs, or compensation draft picks.

As Duquette noted, the Orioles’ farm system is in decent shape; Baseball America recently ranked it 12th, the team’s highest position since 2010.

If the Orioles need to sacrifice in the draft, now is the time.

They took one such step last July 31, trading their competitive-balance pick, the 35th overall, as part of the package for right-hander Bud Norris. The O’€s would lose the 55th choice in addition to the 17th if they signed two comp free agents — say, Santana and designated hitter Kendrys Morales (shortstop Stephen Drew and outfielder Nelson Cruz are the other members of the Frozen Five).

While such a twofer probably is a long shot, Duquette said, "If you do one, I think that makes the second one easier, frankly."

Payroll flexibility is not a problem — the Orioles are currently in the $85 million range and plan to be over $100 million, Duquette said. Then again, like every other team, the O’s boast cheaper alternatives who might prove as effective as the remaining free agents.

Instead of Morales or Cruz, the Orioles could turn to Urrutia, who has been a .400 OBP/.500 SLG hitter everywhere he has played — in Cuba, in Double-A and Triple-A combined last season, in the Arizona Fall League.

Is 2012 first-round pick Kevin Gausman ready to be the No. 5 starter?

Instead of Santana or Jimenez, the O’s could turn to righty Kevin Gausman, the former No. 1 pick who — after adding 12 pounds of bulk — looks more than ready to be the No. 5 starter.

Young players, however, do not come with guarantees.

Urrutia and Gausman showed last season that even the most talented youngsters often take time to develop in the majors. The draft picks that teams keep hoarding — the unprotected choices start at No. 11 most years — are a risk of another sort.

With the Orioles, everything comes back to their two-year window of opportunity. They aren’t deep in starters behind Gausman. And, even though their offense likely would be fine without the addition of another hitter, they could stand to upgrade in left field and especially at DH.

Still, the Orioles need not lock in on comp free agents, especially when the trade market could offer possibilities, too. Say the White Sox want to trade designated hitter Adam Dunn toward the end of spring training. Dunn is owed $15 million in the final year of his contract, but the White Sox probably wouldn’t require much of a return, and the Orioles could retain the pick they would have expended on Morales or Cruz.

A quality starting pitcher will be more difficult to acquire in trade, which is why the signing of Santana or Jimenez makes sense. It’s unclear if the Orioles have a preference. Santana’s above-average home run rate might be a problem at Camden Yards. Jimenez had a 5.10 ERA in his first 61 American League starts before reviving in the second half of last season.

Some club officials and media members also cite Santana’s health as a concern. But, as I reported in November, Dr. James Andrews examined the pitcher independently and performed MRIs on both his elbow and shoulder on Oct. 28, according to Santana’s agents at Proformance.

The Los Angeles Times reported in March 2009 that Santana had a sprained UCL. The agents’ presentation to clubs quotes Andrews as saying, "He doesn’t need any further treatment for his right elbow partial UCL tear, as on (the) MRI today it appears that it has completely healed."

Santana’s last trip to the DL ended on July 3, 2009. Since then, only Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, James Shields and Clayton Kershaw have thrown more innings without logging DL time.

Will all that be enough to persuade the Orioles? In the end, it probably will depend upon price.

At least for the O’s, draft picks won’€™t be an excuse.

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