At a quiet Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Friday, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was asked to not only reflect on the Orioles’ 96-win season that resulted in their first division title in 17 years but also how he planned to attack the offseason in hopes of returning to the playoffs for the third time in four years in 2015.
One of the most prominent items to address will be the pending free agency of slugger Nelson Cruz, who was voted the club’s most valuable player after signing a one-year, $8 million contract last spring. Though several teams are expected to be interesting in his services should he hit the free-agent market, the Orioles are expected to at least make a $15.3 million qualifying offer to Cruz, which would mean they’d receive a draft pick if he’d sign elsewhere.
Asked about his plans for Cruz in the coming weeks, the Orioles executive was noncommittal.
“The important thing for our fans to know is that we’ve increased our payroll over the last couple years,” Duquette said. “I expect we have the foundation for an additional increase, and however we invest that, we’re going to give them the most competitive and compelling and entertaining team we can to support.”
With the sheer number of young players in line to receive raises through arbitration, an increase in payroll was all but guaranteed, but what does that mean for Cruz? After hitting a career-high 40 home runs in his first season with the Orioles, the slugger has expressed several times that he’d like to remain in Baltimore if possible.
The Orioles have engaged in some preliminary contract talks with Cruz’s representation since the All-Star break, but the 34-year-old recently changed agents and is now represented by Diego Bentz of Relativity Sports, according to a FOX Sports report from earlier in the month.
“It’s good to know that Nelson likes it here,” Duquette said. “I can tell just by watching him, he’s the leader of the ball club, and the young players look up to him, especially the young Latin players. He’s an excellent leader, he’s a very good role model, he led the league in home runs, and he had a great year. I really appreciate the veteran leadership that he gave the team.
“Having said that, he came here to have a platform year to get himself reestablished so he could get a long-term deal, and that’s something that we’ll have to consider.”
While Cruz is expected to garner plenty of attention, trying to assess the market for right fielder Nick Markakis will be more complicated as the Orioles are not expected to pick up the $17.5 million mutual option on his contract. The option includes a $2 million buyout should the club not use it.
Markakis has been one of the more productive players in franchise history, but his on-base plus slugging percentage was only .685 in 2013 and only .729 this season, which aren’t eye-popping numbers for a corner outfielder who lacks speed. A cornerstone of the organization for nearly a decade, Markakis is adored by manager Buck Showalter and ownership and has made his home in Maryland, making it likely the sides will eventually agree on a reasonable extension.
Duquette said it was “always a possibility” that the Orioles would negotiate a long-term contract with Markakis, who will turn 31 next month, during the World Series.
The Orioles are less optimistic that they’ll be able to retain the services of left-handed reliever Andrew Miller, who only made himself look more attractive to potential suitors by pitching 7 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason. The 6-foot-7 southpaw is expected to be courted as a closer and receive lucrative money from another team this offseason.
“There’s a lot of interest in Andrew Miller,” Duquette said. “We knew that when we traded for him. He pitched well for us. Good for us that we had him because I think he was the difference in the Tigers series that allowed us to advance. Obviously, we like Andrew and we like to have pitchers of that ilk on our ball club.”
NOTES: Even though Chris Davis has one game remaining on the 25-game suspension he received for amphetamine use, the first baseman will be allowed to be a full participant during spring training and in Grapefruit League games. According to Showalter, the Orioles will benefit from not having to keep Davis on the 40-man roster during the winter, which is an advantage for an organization that manipulates its roster as much as any team in the majors. … Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in Sarasota on Feb. 18 with the first day of workouts the following morning. Position players will participate in their first official workout on Feb. 24. … Asked his thoughts on the remainder of the postseason, Showalter offered a reply that many Orioles fans can appreciate as well as relate to. “Watching it makes me ill. I’m not one of those guys that likes watching other people do what we wanted to do.”