As of midnight this morning, the Major League Baseball free agent signing period has begun. The Orioles have a lot more money available than they have had in previous years, with some real albatross contracts coming off of the books. Even with all of the strides in player development in the past few years, there are a lot of holes left to fill (third base, first base, middle-of-the-order power hitter, veteran starter, several bullpen arms...I think that's all). Naturally, this is the worst-quality free agent market in years. In the end, I just hope the O's have a better Hot Stove season than they did when free agency first hit.
In the winter of 1976-1977, players finally earned the right to test the market for themselves, and the small-market Orioles (led by owner and local brewer Jerry Hoffberger) got hit hard. They lost pitcher Wayne Garland, who had broken through with a 20-7, 2.67 ERA season at age 25, to the Indians on a preposterous 10-year contract. Also gone was homegrown second baseman Bobby Grich, who took four Gold Gloves and three All-Star selections with him to the Angels. The biggest blow of all may have been brash slugger Reggie Jackson, who had cost the Birds budding star outfielder Don Baylor and two pitchers in a blockbuster trade less than a year earlier. Worst of all, Reggie had gone to the hated Yankees, who had recently toppled the Birds from their perch atop the American League East after more than a decade of futility.
As near as I can tell, the O's did not sign a free agent who would make their 1977 roster until February, when they reached an agreement with Billy Smith, a 23-year-old infielder with 72 games of big league experience. In 411 trips to the plate, he hit .215 with a .581 OPS as Grich's primary replacement. He would stay in Baltimore for two more seasons, and in a reduced role he was actually slightly above league average with the bat while playing solid defense. But all things being equal, I'm sure the Orioles would have rather kept his predecessor.
You almost get the sense that the home team wasn't prepared for the onset of free agency.