Just what in the heck happened between the Orioles and Dexter Fowler? The baseball world does not often see something where a player is reported by multiple media outlets as having agreed to a contract with a team, only to two days later turn around and return to his previous team instead. That's just not what happens. Deals can and do fall through all of the time, but done is done, pending the physical. Except that's not how it went this time.
The timeline goes a little something like this: Tuesday at about 6:30, MASN's Roch Kubatko broke the news that the O's and Fowler had reached an agreement. That's not to single out Kubatko for reporting information that's turned out to be wrong; The Baltimore Sun reporters wrote that it was a done deal based on "an industry source," and MLB.com's Brittany Ghiroli also reported a deal was done. National media jumped on it too and were wrong, including MLB Network's Jon Heyman and ESPN's Buster Olney (whose tweet cited multiple sources).
On Wednesday, manager Buck Showalter wouldn't comment on the Fowler situation, but once again, multiple reporters indicated Fowler was believed to be traveling to Sarasota. Orioles players, including Adam Jones, talked to media to express excitement at having Fowler in the lineup, and in Jones' case, having the same player consistently next to him in right field once again. Jones said he had even spoken to, or at least texted with, Fowler.
Around noon on Thursday, Fowler appeared at the Cubs spring training site in Arizona and announced to the players there that he was re-signing. No one had ever so much as reported that there was any snag in the O's having supposedly had an agreement with Fowler. O's fans short-lived dreams of having a player ideally suited for the leadoff spot in the order vanished without any warning.
Something far out of the ordinary workings of free agent negotiations and reporting on rumors about those negotiations happened here. That much seems to be certain. So having laid out that timeline, I wonder again:
What the heck happened with the O's and Fowler?
The first thing we have to try to decide is whether or not the Orioles and Fowler actually had an agreement that both sides believed to be an agreement.
If there was an agreement, presumably (though not certainly) it was Fowler's side who backed out of the agreement, and the question to ask is: Why did Fowler back out of the agreement?
If there was not ever an agreement, the question to ask is: Why did so many reporters declare that there was an agreement? This was not a case of one rogue, obscure writer having one source who turned out to be wrong. A whole lot of people, local and national, got took.
Fowler acknowledged to Cubs reporters that he had turned down a three year offer to re-sign with the Cubs. From the O's side, this is what Dan Duquette had to say about whether there was an agreement:
Duquette: "We made a very competitive offer. There was not an agreement to terms because they kept insisting on an opt out." #orioles— Eduardo A. Encina (@EddieInTheYard) February 25, 2016
Taking this at face value, there was not any agreement. The cynical take might be to say that someone is not necessarily telling the whole truth - neither the O's nor Fowler would come away looking great if either publicly put the other on blast. But, while Duquette often gives evasive answers, he doesn't tend to outright lie, either.
So if Duquette never thought there was an agreement, why were there reports of an agreement from so many channels? Given that the report originated from Kubatko, whose outlet is 84% owned by the Orioles, it's fair to guess that it was an O's source who jumped the gun. This doesn't do much to dispel that notion:
There most definitely were people in #orioles organization who thought Fowler deal was done. And he apparently told Adam Jones he was coming— Roch Kubatko (@masnRoch) February 25, 2016
Of course, instead of believing this means someone in the Warehouse jumped the gun, this could actually be support that there was in fact a settled contract structure of some kind that Fowler backed away from in order to sign with Chicago.
It's fair to wonder about that because how did all of those reporters manage to get it wrong? Did they all call or text the same clueless person or group of people who were somehow blithely unaware that there was a demand for an opt-out that the O's had no intention of meeting?
This is always a possibility. One reason why my default response to any given baseball rumor is that probably nothing will happen is because so often the rumors originate from someone who has no idea what is really going on. Maybe that's what happened here, though this is a bit more of a stretch to accept with both local and national reporters are involved.
Fowler's agent, Casey Close, issued a statement on Thursday evening that's, well, uh:
"In my 25 years in this business, never before have I witnessed such irresponsible behavior on so many fronts. Both the Orioles front office and members of the media were so busy recklessly spreading rumors that they forgot or simply chose not to concern themselves with the truth. The Orioles' willful disregard of collectively bargained rules governing free agency and the media's eager complicity in helping the Orioles violate those rules are reprehensible. Dexter Fowler never reached agreement with the Orioles and did not come close to signing with the club; any suggestion otherwise is only a continuation of an already disturbing trend."
So I think we know his party line on whether or not there was anything resembling an agreement between the two sides. Close's statement shouldn't be taken uncritically any more than Duquette's ought to, however, as he is just as much of a biased party about what happened or didn't happen.
One thing Close does not address in his flamethrowing statement is why, if there was never any agreement with the Orioles and the two sides were never close, did he not call a single one of those reporters who were reporting that a deal was done and say, hey, hold on, wait a minute?
Even if we accept his premise that the Orioles did something irresponsible, unethical, or out and out against the rules, how does that line up with the fact that there was complete radio silence on Wednesday, that Duquette only found out this morning that Fowler wasn't coming to Baltimore?
No reporter, anywhere, had any report that Fowler was going to Arizona instead of Florida until Fowler walked into the Cubs spring training on Thursday morning. There was no report of a breakdown. No one seems to have known about it. While Close is here accusing the Orioles of engaging in skulduggery, it also has the ring of the classic "doth protest too much" line from Hamlet.
Heyman, one of the reporters who was tweeting about the O's and Fowler on Tuesday, followed up with this information today:
Request of O's for 1-yr opt-out came late. Hard to imagine fowler believed O's would do that considering no opt-out policy.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) February 25, 2016
There's a leap of faith here in relying on those who were involved in the news on Tuesday to tell us what happened now. One has to wonder, if they were wrong before, maybe they are wrong now, right? That said, it's really, really rare for a story to get blown so much that it's reported as done and then it turns out to not be done. It could be as Close says, but you have to accept it's a truly outrageous situation to believe that.
It's not normal. If someone like Heyman says something like that, we can roll with that. And it might explain the whole shebang, if it turns out that whatever O's official(s) was operating under a reasonable belief that things had been settled and then the demand for the opt-out came into the process late.
That much at least is a bit less strange. Negotiations can break down and things can change last-minute. The Cubs swooped in last-minute already earlier this offseason in order to sign Ben Zobrist.
The tentative conclusion
The idea that the Cubs may have inserted themselves into the process after learning Fowler and the O's were getting closer on a deal is one that's consistent with the facts of the situation.
That doesn't mean it's true. Other explanations are possible also, but, if you want to apply Occam's razor to this whole thing, I do think (through my own orange lenses) that the simplest explanation is just what I stated above. The O's had things more or less settled with Fowler - perhaps not a formal agreement, which gives Close wiggle room enough to deny, but close enough - and the Cubs upset the apple-cart late by barging in with an opt-out offer late in the process.
Fowler has the right to make his own choice, of course. Until he signs the contract he doesn't owe anybody anything. The whole thing seems weird to us from the outside. It must seem even weirder to the people who were actually on the inside.
Whatever happened or didn't happen, the end result is that the Orioles did not get their man, and that is too bad.