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Even bargain players like Jon Jay aren’t waiting around for the Orioles

Jon Jay seemed like he might be a cheap rebound candidate for the Orioles to consider, until he signed with the Cubs yesterday.

Jon Jay slides to make a catch for the Padres.
Jon Jay’s listed nickname on Baseball Reference is The Federalist.
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Before the 2016 season, the Cubs plucked the Orioles’ perfect outfielder, Dexter Fowler, right out from under their nose. Not even a year later, and here we have the Cubs picking off another likely Orioles outfield target. The defending World Series champions inked lefty outfielder Jon Jay to a one year contract worth $8 million on Tuesday.

This time, it wasn’t a total repeat of the Fowler situation. There was no reason to believe Jay ever had any interest to the Orioles at all before he signed with the Cubs, other than an idea that he seems to fit the pattern of player the Orioles might want to try to sign.

As a lefty outfielder who could plug into right field, on a short-term, low-dollar contract, coming off a bit of a down year, Jay checked all of the boxes for someone the O’s could acquire with their limited available budget this offseason.

The Orioles could do a lot worse than Jay, and with Jay off the market, they may well do worse, either with a budget option who performs worse than Jay or even a more expensive signing who works out the way Yovani Gallardo worked out, which is to say, not as advertised.

A relative bargain bin choice like Jay going off the board while the Orioles haven’t done a darn thing fits the narrative of the Orioles missing out on decent or good players while waiting for the one whose price drops.

Maybe something like that happened, or maybe the O’s just thought they’d check in with Jay’s agent at the winter meetings only for Jay to sign before he even got there. That would be frustrating if that’s what happened.

The O’s seemed to miss out on one of the bargains of last offseason - Rich Hill - in similar fashion. Hill signed a one year, $6 million contract with the Athletics on November 20, 2015. Were the Orioles even awake yet?

It’s not fair to blame it all on the O’s usual somnolent November tendencies, though. Like it or not, an Orioles fan must admit that the Cubs could offer some enticements that the Orioles could not.

There is the cachet of signing with the defending champions, after all - and the Cubs are expected to be a great team again next year as well. The Orioles are coming off a playoff run, but let’s be honest here, if you were an MLB player and you had a choice between the O’s and Cubs right now, where would you sign?

More than just the success factor is the fact that the Cubs can offer Jay regular playing time in center field. Appropriately for the circle of life, Jay will likely take the spot of the departing Fowler in Chicago. Jay has played most of his career in center field and it’s where he will be able to demonstrate the most value to help his future earnings as a player.

The question of whether Adam Jones should move off center field is worth asking, but I think it’s fair to say that even if he would do so, he’s not going to do it for some jabroni on a one year contract. Jay would have been the O’s right fielder and right fielders who hit like Jay are worth less than center fielders who hit like Jay.

So, it’s really not so easy to say, “Well, why didn’t the Orioles get in there at that price?” That price may not have been available to them. The same could be said for Hill a year ago, who surely preferred pitcher-friendly Oakland to audition for a longer contract now. Hill was successful in that audition.

Perhaps it might have taken $10 million to get Jay here, or a second guaranteed year. Maybe Jay really had his heart set on a center field job, full stop, and this was made known to teams, so the O’s never even bothered to inquire about him. Although the O’s may well have missed the boat entirely, other explanations are possible.

Another might be that, although he looked like a good fit on the outside to observers, the O’s weren’t quite as interested. There are downsides to Jay, even at such a relatively small price tag.

In the 2016 season, Jay only played in 90 games, missing more than two months due to a broken forearm suffered when he was hit by a pitch. When he played, Jay batted .291/.339/.389. He has hit more than seven home runs in a season just once in his career.

Jay’s career OBP of .352 looks nice, and would look nice atop the O’s lineup, but he’s now two seasons removed from those heights. Two seasons ago, Jay’s OBP wasn’t much above .300. Speed on the bases is not part of his game. And he’ll be 32 next Opening Day.

That’s not old, especially not when only dealing with a one year contract, but it’s old enough to where you think twice. If the Orioles would be willing to spend $8 million on Jay, perhaps they’d be better off spending more money to secure a surer thing. Or, if they’re looking for a budget-friendly outfield option, maybe they need to look even cheaper than Jay.

Whatever the real reason was that the Orioles didn’t get Jay, the fact remains that he is off the board. It’ll be interesting to see how his 2017 performance stacks up to whoever the O’s end up setting their sights on to get an idea of whether the Orioles made the correct decision.