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The free agent waiting game has come too late to save the Orioles

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The free agents who have tried to wait out the market this year have not gotten the deals they wanted. This trend came along too late to save the Orioles from the Chris Davis contract.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Two offseasons ago, the Orioles waited until what was by those standards late in the offseason to re-sign Chris Davis to a deferred money-heavy seven-year contract worth $161 million in late January 2016. With Davis crushing 47 home runs with a .923 OPS in his last year before free agency, it wasn't hard for Orioles fans to be excited about at least the early years of the contract, before he was too far beyond age 30. Things haven't quite worked out that way.

At the time, that seemed like playing a serious free agent waiting game. Yet that was nothing compared to what is going on this offseason, with so many free agents not signing until February and some, including starting pitchers Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, either of whom might improve the Orioles tomorrow, still remaining unsigned.

One player who scratched himself off of the unsigned list on Thursday night is Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, who rejected the $17.4 million qualifying offer and found himself facing a market where, by and large, the good teams already had third basemen and the bad teams didn't care about signing a guy to a five-year contract to improve their third base situation.

For Moustakas, searching for something near the $85 million that MLBTR projected for him at the start of the offseason has ended with a return to the Royals, with Moustakas having to settle for a one-year contract with just $6.5 million guaranteed. The contract has a mutual option for another possible $15 million for 2019.

That's a tough beat for a player to take whose only crime was hitting the free agent market in the year when teams started thinking differently. Moustakas is represented by Scott Boras, who is notorious for finding a way to get some team to blink and hand out the huge contract. Boras pulled off that same trick just last month, finding a fellow ex-Royal, Eric Hosmer, $144 million from the Padres. In this case, he had to blink.

I can't help but think about the path that led Davis back to the Orioles. At the time, there was general agreement among the baseball pundit world that the Orioles had bid against themselves in re-signing Davis to such a large sum.

Even this pessimistic blogger who likes to think he's too enlightened to go full homer was excited about the signing, full of swagger, snarking at those national media figures who like, just didn't get the Orioles, man. Sure, it might be a disaster in the later years, but we could worry about that when the time came, couldn't we?

That was the theory, anyway. Davis might be bad later but he would still be good in the three years before Manny Machado, Zach Britton, and Adam Jones became free agents. The Orioles might pay the price eventually. They would, however, get a bunch of dingers while the team pushed hard with its existing core.

In the first two of those three seasons, Davis combined to bat .218/.322/.443. What's worse, in 2017, with MLB probably having adjusted the baseballs to increase home run potential and jabronis all across the game suddenly finding themselves hitting 30+ homers, Davis could only muster 26. It was the year of the homer, and a guy who once hit 53 homers in a season was nowhere to be found. There are regrets.

The situations are not completely similar. Though Moustakas is a year younger than Davis was when Davis hit free agency, Moustakas has the problem that he is just the sort of jabroni mentioned in the previous paragraph, hitting 38 home runs in 2017 when, in his career, he had never before topped 22.

Moustakas is a career .251/.305/.425 batter overall and even his 2017 "breakout" only came with a .314 OBP. In retrospect, of course nobody was giving that dude a big contract, no matter what kind of great clubhouse presence he is or isn't - especially when the contenders were set at third base.

We know now that the Orioles almost certainly did bid against themselves for Davis, that no other team was really showing much interest. It appeared that Boras connected directly with owner Peter Angelos and made the deal happen. We will probably never know what it might have looked like if the baseball operations people had been in full control of the negotiating.

Though Davis had his ups and downs in Baltimore, with his struggle of a 2014 season that included a drug suspension, he hit 53 homers in 2013 and 47 homers in 2015 and combined to bat .252/.347/.544 in his three years before becoming a free agent.

Perhaps I'm only being a reflexive homer in defending my favorite baseball team's decisionmaking, but to me, the signing had merit and potential to work out fine for the Orioles, enough so to make that a worthwhile signing. Waiting out Boras to get a better deal on Davis eventually wouldn't have looked like this Moustakas settling with the Royals. It would have never ended up with some kind of one-year deal.

Maybe it would have instead been a shorter-term contract with a higher AAV. Wouldn't you have jumped for joy at the time if the contract had instead been for something like four years and $100 million?

That would have seemed great for Davis, with Orioles fans not having to worry about the consequences of years 5-7. Yet if that was the deal and we were looking at it now it would still seem to be a disaster, just one that would be over a lot sooner. If we are lucky, Davis might do something to reverse this impression this season.

The Orioles did almost the same exact thing one year later! Mark Trumbo's demands were lower, so that three-year, $37.5 million contract will haunt them less than the Davis deal. But Trumbo was, like Moustakas, a qualifying offer guy whose position, 1B/DH, wasn't going to get him many suitors among the contenders. There aren't many GMs who would sacrifice a draft pick for a guy who at the time had a .303 career OBP.

If the Orioles had recognized the talent of their own internal replacement option, Trey Mancini, they might have had the nerve to wait out Trumbo longer to get a better price, or even tell him no thanks and spend that money to shore up what turned into MLB's worst starting rotation. There's nothing productive about these laments, but I can't help but think about them all the same.

This offseason's free agent waiting game is showing that the time where middle-of-the-road free agents can just get paid assuming their past performance will continue is, for now, over. The Moustakas contract, plus whatever the likes of Lynn and Cobb settle for, show us that. It's just come two years too late to save the Orioles from their bad deals. Hopefully, they learn the right lessons from all of this.