Spring training is just a bit more than six weeks away and the Orioles still have at least one major hole to fill on their roster and money to burn. The rumor mill was dormant through the Christmas/New Years period, but it's spinning as strong as ever on Wednesday afternoon. ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted that the Orioles remain in contact with the camps of both Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes, two free agent outfielders with different things going for and against them.
Why today? Perhaps Alex Gordon signing with the Royals will be the spark everyone has been waiting for to get the market going. That signing takes one big name off the board for other teams, and it takes one team off the board for a large crop of remaining free agent outfielders that also includes Dexter Fowler, Denard Span, and former Orioles Steve Pearce and Gerardo Parra. No one is going to want to be the last one standing when the money or open starting positions run out.
Olney raises the interesting possibility that Upton, who'd been projected to get a contract of seven years due to his relatively young age of 28, may end up searching for a one-year deal in a place where he could post good numbers and build up his value. Although Upton just posted a respectable .251/.336/.454 batting line in 2015, that's also career lows in all three of the triple slash numbers for any full season of Upton's career. He may find that he could get a better contract in a year's time with a better launch year.
Another writer, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, pins the Rangers as being interested in Upton on a one-year contract if things get to that point, so this doesn't seem to just be wishful thinking on the O's part. Rosenthal also makes note of the big, burning question looming over everything regarding the pursuit of other free agents: Do they really want these guys, or is this all just leverage to hold over Scott Boras in the Chris Davis negotiations?
Would you want Upton if he came on a one-year deal? That worked out well for the O's with Nelson Cruz, but on the other hand, it's a bit tougher of a sell to give up the #14 overall pick, whereas with Cruz the O's gave up a mid-2nd round pick. A one-year deal for Upton would probably mean a qualifying offer in a year's time and an early-30s draft pick coming back the O's way, just like what happened with Cruz. It's not an even swap in Upton's case, but it's not nothing, either.
There would also be the benefit to the 2016 Orioles of Upton's performance. Upton is a left fielder. Orioles left fielders in 2015 batted a collective .210/.287/.353. Upton's .790 OPS was a disappointment in 2015 and that was a full 150 points higher than what Orioles left fielders mustered.
One other thing to think about with Upton. Against left-handed pitchers in 2015 he batted only .191/.258/.300. That stands in stark contrast to his career numbers, which are more in line with what you'd expect for a right-handed batter. Over his nine year MLB career, Upton has an .886 OPS against lefties. A hypothetical one-year deal for Upton might well be the ideal opportunity for him to show that was a one-year aberration and not the beginning of a new trend for his career.
Then again, if it is all just Davis leverage, then all of us imagining a set of real outfielders who don't suck patrolling at Oriole Park at Camden Yards is pointless. Remember my law of baseball rumors: Probably nothing will happen.