The Orioles have prospects Josh Bell and Brandon Snyder, but they said before the winter that they'd prefer to have a veteran option at both infield corners. And now that they have Atkins -- who signed a one-year deal worth $4.5 million with an option for the 2011 season -- they have the opportunity to vigilantly watch the market unfold over the next few weeks.
"We do feel like we have young kids at first and third," said MacPhail. "Anyone that required a long-term commitment was something that wasn't ideal for us. Here we had the opportunity, in our view, to take a little bit of a risk on a guy that was one of the game's most productive hitters going into last season. We got the kind of right-handed bat we wanted on pretty much our terms, one plus an option. And it gives us the versatility to sort of gauge the first- and third-base market going out. The more we got into this, the more we learned about the potential cost for other options at first and third, the more attractive Garrett became."
Atkins, who had spent his entire career with Colorado, became a free agent after the Rockies elected not to offer him a contract. The 30-year-old had two extremely productive years with the Rockies before falling off in 2008 and dropping even further last season, and he said that he regards Baltimore as an excellent place for him to turn his career back around.
"I knew I was going to be non-tendered a month or two ago," said Atkins. "You just kind of pick up rumblings in other papers about teams that might want you, but you never really know until it actually happens. [The Orioles] stepped up and were the first one to call, showed the most interest and were able to provide the most playing time. They obviously had the potential to have a great lineup here and a good team. All those things were great, and they had the most confidence in me as a player."
Baltimore actually engaged in trade talks with Colorado before the non-tender deadline, but it couldn't come to an agreement. The Orioles elected instead to bide their time and take their chances on the open market.
Atkins, a career .289 hitter, set personal bests across the board in 2006. He batted .329 with a .409 on-base mark and a .556 slugging percentage that year, and he's seen his numbers regress in all three categories over the past three seasons. MacPhail wasn't worried about that decline, though, and said that he felt the Orioles had acquired a bargain.
"Garrett was one of the most productive hitters in all of baseball going into the 2009 season," said MacPhail. "We're very confident that we're going to be able to -- and he's going to be able to, more importantly -- get back to where he's been in the past. Most of you know I have a lot of confidence in [hitting coach] Terry Crowley, and Terry's always been a believer that if it's in there, he can get it out. We've already done some video work, so we're excited about the possibility of adding a big right-handed bat."
Of course, that possibility comes with a risk. Atkins batted just .226 with nine home runs and 48 RBIs last season, a decline he said had more to do with him being uncomfortable than it had to do with his overall ability. Atkins flatly said that he has a lot to prove this season, and he's thankful that the Orioles were the team to give him an opportunity.
"I got off to a rough start and then the coaches started tinkering," he said. "I couldn't really get a handle on it, and then I started feeling decent, but lost my starting spot and playing time got kind of sporadic. I felt like I'd have a couple good games in a row, then one bad one and you find yourself sitting on the bench for two or three days. It was a tough situation, but I'm just looking forward to getting back to playing every day and showing that I'm the productive hitter I have been in the past."
And if he does, Atkins will put himself in a much stronger bargaining position. The right-handed hitter can earn up to $500,000 in incentives this season, and the club holds an $8.5 million option for the 2011 season. Atkins can rehabilitate his stock and gain a heavy pay raise for next season, and failing that, he can also be right back on the free-agent market.
Not surprisingly, Atkins has been a far better hitter at Coors Field than he has been on the road. The veteran has batted .327/.385/.507 at home and .252/.324/.411 on the road, but he said that he expects to thrive at Camden Yards. When you get down to it, said Atkins, the high-altitude Coors Field effect is really more about batting average than it is about power.
"With the humidor, I think it makes a huge difference," he said. "Coming from Colorado Springs -- which didn't have a humidor -- and watching the way the ball just flew there, the outfielders couldn't even track balls down. It's definitely not like that at Coors Field. The power numbers aren't quite there like they used to be, but hitting there is still pretty good. The gaps are huge. There are a lot of doubles there, a lot of base hits, but I think the home run numbers are kind of even there now compared to other parks."
"Garrett made a good point when he talked about the humidor and the impact that's had. It's a huge stadium, though, and a lot of balls will drop in that don't drop in other stadiums," added MacPhail. "We do think that the road stats by Rockies players are depressed, because they play under different conditions at home and their ability to assimilate to sea-level baseball probably negatively impacts their road production by a certain percentage. That is one of our more esoteric-type studies, but we do think that while the home stats are inflated to a degree, we think conversely that there's an impact on their road stats."
The Orioles are far from done for the winter, but they'll probably adopt a wait-and-see approach over the coming weeks. The team has already had a busy winter, starting with adding starter Kevin Millwood via trade and then by signing both Atkins and closer Mike Gonzalez. The major needs have been fulfilled, and now the Orioles can take their time to fix the margins.
"We feel like we could start the season today and feel confident that we're a much-improved ballclub from where we were a year ago," said MacPhail. "We have internal options at both first and third that we could live with based on the position Garrett plays. ... And that doesn't count any of the things we might do between now and Spring Training. I feel like for one of the few times in my career that the supply will meet the demand. There will be some good opportunities for this club as the offseason continues to unfold. It's going to require a little patience and some guys going off the board that wouldn't be our first choice. But I'm pretty confident that there are going to be some opportunities for us that we're going to be grateful for as the season unfolds."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.