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The Orioles keep finding ways to handicap themselves

The Orioles can be a frustrating team to follow. That’s on full display this offseason as the Orioles try - but not very hard - to fix the worst starting rotation in baseball.

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Orioles are coming off of a season where they had the worst starting rotation in baseball. They’re in the middle of this offseason needing three starting pitchers from outside the organization, and they’re heading towards a season where their best player will be playing his last season before becoming a free agent.

All of this points to the fact that the O’s desperately and immediately need pitching help, and yet, they keep finding new ways to handicap themselves in their pursuit of improving that rotation. It’s generous to even call their efforts a pursuit.

The frustrating signs of this poor approach can be found tucked here and there into stories by Orioles beat writers, but sometimes they are right out in the open, too. O’s GM Dan Duquette appeared on MLB Network Radio on Sunday night to talk about what’s going on with the Orioles heading into the winter meetings. The lowlight of his appearance:

This is a reference to Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani, who has since signed with the Angels. Ohtani solicited responses to a questionnaire from every team in MLB as he sought to find a place to play here. It was commonly accepted that every team should do this, no matter how small they believed their chances of signing Ohtani, with an oft-repeated phrase that to not do so would be like failing to run out a ground ball. You never know.

Yet the Orioles, we now know, did not even bother. In the grand scheme, this specific thing does not matter in its own right. It seems clear that Ohtani had a strong preference for a west coast team and there’s probably not anything that the Orioles could have done to have changed that. But they could not have known this going into the process. Even now, no one seems to really know what Ohtani did or didn’t want.

“The posting part of it” that Duquette referred to in the above quote is likely a reference to the part where the Angels will pay $20 million to Ohtani’s old Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters. Any team that came to an agreement with Ohtani would have had to do this.

What is the philosophy that leads to not participating in that system is not immediately clear; one could scour the entirety of rational thought in search of the answer and have a hard time finding one. It’s stupid, it’s short-sighted, and it’s just so Orioles.

Of course, this is hardly the only time that the Orioles apparently “philosophically don’t participate” in the acquisition of talent from outside of the United States. Their lack of action on international amateur players in Central and South America is now nearly legendary. They spend the least money. They trade away their signing bonus allotment for non-prospects and organizational filler at best.

It’s all part of a steadfast refusal to seriously engage with the unescapable reality that quantity and quality of 16-year-olds signed out of places like the Dominican Republic is one important part in keeping a continually healthy farm system and big league team. Duquette is the good soldier tasked with giving bad quotes about it, but it seems that all of this could only stem from ownership at the top.

If you want to give the Orioles credit, this may be a moral stand of some kind, refusing to be a part of what seems to be a process rife with corruption, as evidenced by the recent punishment handed down to the Atlanta Braves. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t help the Orioles at all - and Ohtani, coming over from Japan, has nothing to do with any of that.

Shutting themselves out from the best of the international talent pool leaves them with the need to do their business domestically. That means the draft, where the Orioles trade away and forfeit high picks willy-nilly, and it also means free agency, where the Orioles... well, they sign Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo and think that’s somehow helping. We know how those moves worked out.

What are the Orioles going to do about it as the winter meetings get under way today? Here’s MASN’s Roch Kubatko, repeating a theme from a month or so ago:

The Orioles are going to keep exploring trades to fill out their rotation as the prices climb in free agency. They really like Alex Cobb, but it’s believed that he’ll move out of their range. And the same goes for Lance Lynn.

“That checkbook baseball doesn’t always work out,” Duquette said.

The Orioles would know about checkbook baseball, since they did, after all, hand out $161 million to Chris Davis to keep him around. That move hasn’t worked out so well. Neither have the re-signings of Mark Trumbo and Darren O’Day. That’s how it goes sometimes.

A team that wants to win has to recover from the mistakes and keep trying. No one cares about the woe-is-me stories of wasted money. It’s true there are bad free agent pitching signings every offseason, as the Orioles signing of Jimenez was bad. But when your team just won 75 games and needs to sign three starters to fix up an MLB-worst rotation, beggars can’t be choosers.

It’s not like it’s only the top-tier free agents like Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish who cause the Orioles to balk. As Kubatko writes above, they’re even balking at Cobb and Lynn. And according to Baltimore Baseball’s Dan Connolly, even third tier or lower guys are having price tags where the Orioles tap out:

The bigger problem is that the Orioles’ true free agent targets this offseason were in the third (and solid) tier: Tyler Chatwood, Miles Mikolas, Mike Fiers and Andrew Cashner.

The only one that is still a free agent is Cashner. The other three quickly were scooped up.

Chatwood, who survived Coors Field to put up respectable overall numbers, signed a three-year, $38 million deal with the Chicago Cubs – that’s more than the Orioles expected to pay.

Mikolas, who returned to the majors after three years in Japan, signed a two-year, $15.5 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals – that’s more than the Orioles expected to pay.

If this whole process wasn’t frustrating enough for Orioles fans, this is just one more kick in the pants. Who cares what the Orioles expected to pay? We do this dance every offseason. The market goes higher than expected. Either you want to try to fix the rotation or you don’t.

The $15.5 million handed out to Mikolas is chump change for a baseball team, especially for a guy with some actual upside. Somehow, even that scared the Orioles away. It is not a very encouraging sign for the rest of the offseason or the season to come next year. This could be the last hurrah for the remaining core of a great Orioles run and they’re scared of pitching price tags.

Maybe the Orioles will surprise us, as they have done before, and compete well even when things look bleak, even in spite of these various handicaps they put on themselves. The story was not much different heading into 2012, 2014, or 2016. Maybe they will do it again. But if they don’t, we won’t have to look very hard to figure out why they didn’t.