LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Signing a closer to replace former All-Star Jim Johnson is high on Dan Duquette's shopping list at this week's winter meetings, but word that the Orioles executive vice president was close to acquiring a free-agent closer Tuesday was premature and became an example of the way rumor sometimesdiffers from reality on the hot-stove front.
The day began with discussion swirling that the Orioles were nearing a deal with free agent Grant Balfour, but Duquette and manager Buck Showalter said the club had yet to make an offer to any closer. Instead, the Orioles are choosing to stand pat and monitor the free-agent market, Duquette said.
Duquette said he made an offer Tuesday to a free agent he did not name, but otherwise the Orioles head into the third day of the winter meetings today with little more accomplished than their due diligence and a lot of preparation for Thursday's Rule 5 draft.
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Duquette was confident Sunday night that he would leave Florida with an acquisition other than the team's likely Rule 5 draft pick. Asked again Tuesday, Duquette said, “I hope so.”
“The speculation that we have a deal or are close to a deal, that's not accurate,” Duquette said. “I don't know why there's so much speculation out there. Maybe it's because we haven't been able to close a deal and sign a player, but we're continuing to work to build our pitching staff.”
The club has discussed Balfour as well as other closing possibilities such as former St.Louis Cardinals reliever John Axford, ex-Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez, former Detroit Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit and ex-Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney, but Duquette said Tuesday that no deal was imminent. The Orioles met with Axford's representatives this week, an industry source said.
“There's a lot of speculation out there with the closer thing, and I think the speculation is pretty far ahead of the market and our involvement in the market,” Duquette said. “We did make some progress on that in terms of we have a better idea of what the market is there, but we've got a lot more work to do to actually build our pitching staff.”
The Orioles dealt Johnson — who recorded back-to-back 50-save seasons — last week in a move Duquette termed a “reallocation of resources.” Johnson was projected to make about $10 million in his final year of eligibility.
Balfour, 35 — who saved 62 games over the past two years on back-to-back American League West champion Oakland Athletics teams — would likely command not only an annual salary of $8million to $10 million, but also a multiyear commitment. If the Orioles are interested in not spending about 10percent of their projected payroll on a closer, which seemed to be the point of trading Johnson, more cost-effective options such as Axford and Perez would be options.
But right now, the Orioles are in wait-and-see mode.
“We know what the market is now, so we've done our work,” Duquette said. “We can respond to the market and see if we can sign some players. We've done our work. We've met with some agents for starting pitchers and some of the agents for some of the relief pitchers, so we have a good idea of what's available to us to sign, and hopefully we can do some good to come to an agreement and sign a couple of players to help our pitching staff.”
The Orioles could also pass on all of them and move right-hander Tommy Hunter into the closer spot or at least test him initially and pursue a player returning from injury who might not be ready for Opening Day such as Joel Hanrahan (Tommy John elbow reconstruction) or Andrew Bailey (torn labrum). But interest around baseball seems to be picking up on that duo as well.
“We talk about players,” Showalter said. “We talk about everybody, the same ones you all are talking about. I will say that we are no closer on one than we are on the other.”
Duquette indicated Monday that the trade market has been slow to develop here at the meetings, but that he has had lots of conversations with potential trade partners.
“A lot of teams are interested in our players that are core players, but they're core players for us, so a lot of those discussions are nonstarters,” Duquette said. “I'm encouraged that we do have some interest in some of our younger players, so I think that's encouraging for us, it's encouraging for our major league team whether they're coming up to help the team or for us to be able to trade them. We have a little bit more depth. It's not significantly more, but we have more.”
The Orioles are targeting about five or six trade candidates who can help fill the club's void in left field and designated hitter, including the Florida Marlins' Logan Morrison, according to a source. Morrison would fill the team's desire for a left-handed hitter — he recorded a .354 on-base percentage against right-handed pitching last year — and is under team control for the next three seasons, but that's part of the reason seven teams have shown interest, as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.
Duquette also said he hasn't spoken to agent Scott Boras this week about possible extensions for catcher Matt Wieters or first baseman Chris Davis, nor does he expect to do so this week at the meetings. Wieters and Davis are under team control for the next two years.
“There's a time of the year to do that, and that's not right now,” Duquette said.
Around the horn: Duquette said again that he isn’t limited to offering just a one-year deal for a starting pitcher and that he would consider signing a starter to a deal of more than two years on a case-by case basis. “I guess it depends on the pitcher and what the risk is and what the price is,” Duquette said. “I think you have to look one closely and see if it works for your team.” … The Orioles scouted pitcher Tomo Ohka, who is attempting a comeback to the majors after converting to a knuckleballer, according to a source. Ohka would settle for a minor league deal for an opportunity to get back to majors.