Baltimore Orioles: MLB Storm Brewing

October 20, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler (24) reacts after being called out on strikes in the first inning against the New York Mets in game three of the NLCS at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
October 20, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler (24) reacts after being called out on strikes in the first inning against the New York Mets in game three of the NLCS at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

After a tumultuous week for the Baltimore Orioles that featured a last minute restructured deal for a pitcher, a deal with an outfielder falling apart, and culminated with a major sports agency smearing the franchise, a key question remains: What is MLB going to do about all of this?

What a week for Baltimore Orioles fans… It all began last Saturday evening when news broke that the much anticipated signing of Right handed Starting Pitcher Yovani Gallardo had finally become a reality, first reported as a 3 year, $35 million contract. This kicked off another round of examination and conjecture by fans and local media that had quieted in the days leading up to the signing while the impending deal was being negotiated.

Then Tuesday afternoon the rumors of a failed Gallardo physical began to make the rounds and fans and media outside of Baltimore began to chide the Orioles organization for their stringent health reviews. Although it caused much hand wringing in Bird Land, Orioles fans should be thrilled that owner Peter Angelos and GM Dan Duquette do such a thorough job vetting the health of investments. The criticism from other fan bases and especially from the media regarding the Orioles internal procedures is 100% wrong. While Angelos and Duquette have their own good reasons for their due diligence in screening players before committing big dollars, Orioles fans should also do their homework on one of the most stinging deals in team history. In January of 1991, the Orioles sent three future All Stars, Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch, and Curt Schilling, to the Houston Astros for First Baseman Glenn Davis. Finley went on to hit 299 of his 304 career homeruns for other teams. Harnisch won 95 games in another uniform on his way to a career winning record. And Schilling…do we have to do this? All he did was go on to become one of the most dominant post season pitchers we’ve ever seen, bloody sock and all. Davis hit less than 25 homeruns and drove in under 100 runs during his three disappointing seasons in Baltimore combined due to lingering back issues. He was out of baseball after the 1993 season at age 32, when he should have been in his prime. I doubt Orioles fans want to relive this type of history again so I say keep the rigid health inspections coming. It has avoided further embarrassments with players like Grant Balfour, Aaron Sele, and Tyler Colvin to name a few. In those cases the Orioles were on target in their decision to avoid long term commitments because their physical examinations turned up indications of future injury issues. Why the rest of the league is not copying this behavior is mind boggling considering the guaranteed investments they make in players.

Anyway, back to the present…around the time that the Gallardo physical was causing some anxiety for fans, some good news appeared to surface. It was announced that the Orioles had an agreement in place to bring Free Agent Outfielder Dexter Fowler on board, which was another highly anticipated move that the media advised for days was all but definite. Finally, the Orioles had the lead off threat they sorely needed that would move MVP candidate Manny Machado to a better run producing spot in the lineup. Media pundits started talking about the potency of the Orioles lineup and fans began salivating over the prospect of watching Third Base coach Bobby Dickerson imitating a windmill all season. The deal seemed so imminent even Orioles players were providing their thoughts. However the O’s leadership was stoic as always, only commenting that there was interest and discussions had occurred.

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  • The Orioles front office is very much like the Baltimore Ravens front office. They don’t leak information, they keep their dealings very close to the vest, and they hate to give up draft picks. It looked as if nothing had changed during this off season as they held very tightly to the 14th overall pick in the upcoming draft. But there is one other characteristic of the Duquette led front office that defines his tenure in Baltimore; the pride taken in closing shrewd deals for players that other teams have passed on. So when the news of the two deals broke, Orioles fans knew their team was pushing their chips to the middle of the table because of the chance to land two key pieces at a discount. It was finally our turn to go for it. And it all seemed to fall in to place when the Gallardo issue was resolved and the O’s restructured his deal at an even better rate for the team. The construction of the 2016 Orioles roster was essentially complete and the Front Office had done a masterful job addressing team needs. With a few bounce back seasons from the rotation, a return to the playoffs seemed not only plausible, but imminent.

    Apr 6, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
    Apr 6, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

    But then Thursday afternoon it fell apart when it was reported that Fowler was not in Florida, but on his way to Arizona, the location of the Chicago Cubs Spring Training facility after changing his mind and signing a one year $8 million deal. After the shock of losing what appeared to be a key piece to the Orioles season subsided, most fans were left wondering what happened. Most of the media meanwhile simply changed the title of their blog posts and had their graphics department remove the Orioles uniform they photo-shopped into stock pictures of Fowler, like it all never happened. And then the final blow, Fowler’s agent. Casey Close, released a scathing statement about the Orioles organization and the media on Friday with the backing of Excel Sports Management, blaming everyone but himself and Fowler for the reports of a pending agreement with the Orioles. We’ll get back to Close and Excel in a moment. But the net result was that the Orioles were right back where they started with regards to filling their need in Right Field and at the lead off spot.

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    So, now that we’ve all relived that painful walk down memory lane together, what actually went wrong? While it’s hard to believe anything being written on the internet now after the events of the past week, all accounts seem to indicate that Close and Fowler tried to include the latest wrinkle in the Baseball agent’s tool box at the last minute; the one year opt-out tied to a long term deal. Basically, players and agents want to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. This, along with the dreadfully thought out Qualifying Offer rules MUST be addressed by Major League Baseball immediately or the Fowler situation will only be the beginning of major headaches for Baseball.

    Before I get deeper into the storm that is brewing for Major League Baseball with regards to these two issues, I want to turn  my attention back to Close and Excel Sports Management for a moment. You see, there is one small fact in this messy ordeal that throws Close’s rage against the Media Machine and the Orioles organization totally out the window; Adam Jones. Aside from the fact that Fowler, Close, or anyone else from Excel had two full days to refute the reports that talks had led to at least a verbal agreement but chose not to for their own purposes to keep negotiations open with the Cubs, the one piece of concrete evidence that a deal truly was about to be completed was the fact that Adam Jones talked to Fowler who TOLD HIM the deal was almost done and that he would be in Florida. Why would Adam Jones lie? He has nothing to gain from lying about his conversations with Fowler indicating the outfielder planned to be in Orioles camp the next day.

    Meanwhile, Close’s absolutely unprofessional tirade against the Orioles and the media has served it’s purpose. It set the media up to do exactly what most are doing; blame the Orioles and pile on. So the same people that were telling us for over a week that it was a foregone conclusion that Fowler would be an Oriole now are blaming the Orioles for everything from talking about it, to not accepting the opt-out, to being duped by Close, all because they don’t want to admit that they were wrong. Brilliant move by Close who was backed by his agency who slapped their letterhead on the official statement they Tweeted out on Friday. The reality is very likely though that it was Close all along who was feeding this rumor mill to better his negotiating position with the Cubs after seemingly providing awful consultation to his client. Fowler declined the qualifying offer from the Cubs because he and his agent wanted the stability of a long term deal. Why else would you turn down $15.8 million for a one year deal? Oh, right…because you instead wanted to accept $7 million less from the exact same team for the exact same timeframe. But, you say, he also has a $5 million buy out!! Yeah most of the media are trying to play that save face game too by calling it a one year, $13 million deal. It’s not. Let’s take a closer look.

    Fowler turned down $35 million guaranteed from the Orioles because he wanted to be able to walk away from the team, who would have also been forced to surrender the 28th overall pick in the June draft, if he had a season that he felt would allow him to go get more money as a Free Agent. Instead what he got was $13 million if the Cubs decide not to bring him back next season, so on the surface it looks like he could get exactly what he wants and walk with about $1 million more than if he had signed with the O’s and gotten and exercised his opt-out!! Wow, Close is a brilliant agent!! He used the media, the Orioles, and the Cubs to get a great deal for his client!! Or maybe the Orioles dodged a nightmare future dealing with Close and Fowler, and Cubs GM Theo Epstein showed he’s the smartest one of them all…

    What Epstein did was stack his deck. He knows as well as anyone that the Cubs pitching is not as good as everyone thinks it is and he might need to go get an arm in August. Let’s face it, if you think Jake Arrieta has an encore to 2015, think again. Has he been great for the Cubs? Absolutely, he was a revelation last season. Is that the real Arrieta? Absolutely not. Epstein also knows that John Lester’s and John Lackey‘s best days are well behind them and Kyle Kendricks and Jason Hammel are far from being a formidable back end of the rotation. They are also counting on a whole lot of young talent that has had marginal success at the MLB level. While everyone else is picking the Cubs to win it all, Epstein is living in reality and he knows that he will likely need to move a few of those young outfielders, like Jorge Soler, Matt Szczur, or Javier Baez to get an arm that can take them back to the playoffs. And when that happens, guess who’s $9 million option is getting picked up for 2017? You guessed it, Dexter Fowler’s. So what he really got was a $6 million LOSS, not a 5$ million GAIN from his deal with the Cubs. If he’d signed in Baltimore he’d have gotten $11.5 in both 2016 and 2017. What he’ll get from the Cubs during that time frame is $17 million total.

    And what if Epstein decides that his young outfielders are worth keeping and he deals Fowler at the break? I have yet to hear that there was a no-trade clause attached. If Epstein gets 4 good months out of Fowler and then bounces him elsewhere in a deal for pitching, the Cubs would owe him nothing and essentially opt out and get something in return for him! In both cases, the Cubs get a player they wanted for far less than the $15.8 million qualifier they were initially willing to pay!

    When one of these scenarios does play out, and one will, Excel Sports Management is going to have a lot of explaining to do to their clients on top of advising them that they are at the disadvantage of only dealing with 29 MLB teams while the rest of the Baseball agent world’s phone calls will be picked up by the Orioles. If there is one thing Peter Angelos knows, it’s how to hurt people in the wallet and I don’t see the Orioles dealing with Close or Excel anytime in the near future; their punishment for publicly humiliating the Orioles.

    Back to MLB though. This could be the beginning of an issue of which Commissioner Rob Manfred’s legacy might be shaped. If he does not get ahead of this one year player opt out trend and/or fix the Qualifying Offer rules, the combination of the two might just lead to a work stoppage in the near future. What Close and other agent’s are doing with these opt outs was thought to be the impossible; they are making billionaire owners look sympathetic. And if you’ve been following Twitter, many fans agree. If a team has to give up a draft pick to sign a player, why would they be willing to let that player walk away if he has a great season? And furthermore, if players demand buyouts when the team opts not to exercise an option year, why shouldn’t the player have to buy out his long term contract that a team committed to if they want to return to free agency early? It’s because the MLB Players Association is the strongest union in the world and they don’t know where to stop in their quest to accelerate the increase in salaries for their players.

    Next: Baltimore Orioles: Hurting Themselves?

    If Rob Manfred does not get out in front of this storm, the 2016 Hot Stove season will be remembered for the first few drops of rain. The Orioles have taken the first stand and it created a mess in the form of the Fowler saga. With the looming Free Agency of players like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez, and other young stars, this could get out of hand in a hurry when players want record money year in and year out essentially on one year deals. And their agents will be more than willing to sling the mud and do the dirty work to line their pockets. Your move Commissioner….