Orioles unusually quiet for a team with needs
Baltimore gambling that it can improve with team that so far has few additions
It seems safe to say this was not the sort of winter Orioles fans wanted or expected.
Not on the heels of the organization's return to relevance. While 2013's outcome fell short of October, the 85-win effort did prove Baltimore's 2012 breakthrough was no fluke.
Alas, while appearances tend to be deceiving this time of year, the O's appear to have gone a bit backward, waving goodbye to Scott Feldman, Brian Roberts, Nate McLouth and Jim Johnson and countering those losses with the decidedly unsexy additions of guys like Jemile Weeks, David Lough and Alexi Casilla.
It's not that there isn't value in the speed and defense Lough can add to the outfield or the middle-infield insurance Casilla brings to the bench. It's just that, in the rather abusive relationship that accompanies residency in the American League East, where the Yankees are throwing money at every problem and the Red Sox are defending world champs and the Rays look like they're keeping David Price and improving elsewhere, the Orioles' moves don't register high on the radar.
So, yes, a measure of moaning on the part of those who expected to see the O's make a splash -- particularly in an unsettled starting rotation -- is understandable.
"Why are those expectations there?" manager Buck Showalter said during a radio interview last week. "Because we created them the last couple years by being more competitive."
It is important to remember, at a time of year when we naturally root for our favorite club to "win the winter," that the 2014 O's can and likely will be a competitive club. Even in the AL East.
In Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy, they've got the nucleus of a contender, especially if Machado continues to make strides in his recovery from knee surgery that followed that gruesome injury he suffered last September. (We'll take Machado's attendance at a recent Jay-Z show as an encouraging sign on that front, no matter the specifics of his company at the concert.)
It's also important to remember that a rotation that ranked near the bottom of the league in innings pitched and strikeouts last year could be due for some incremental in-house improvement.
Chris Tillman continues to come into his own, Wei-Yin Chen could provide more innings and upside after his injury-addled '13, Kevin Gausman will have more chances to establish himself as the Major League threat the O's expect him to be, and Bud Norris will have a full year of AL adjustment under his belt. The O's also hold out hope that they'll see top prospect Dylan Bundy pitching meaningful innings by season's end, provided his Tommy John rehab remains on track.
But the budget crunch that comes with the core has left the Orioles reliant more on the power of positive thinking than anything truly bankable. In an offseason market in which a guy like Feldman somehow commanded a $30 million guarantee, the O's, despite their glaring need for quality innings, have remained only on the fringes of the free-agent waters.
Perhaps their patience will be rewarded in the days ahead. Bronson Arroyo remains an especially intriguing option for a ballclub on a budget, because of the depth and durability he could provide on a short-term deal. Arroyo's search for a three-year guarantee is the primary reason he's still out there, but, if he falls into the two-year terrain, the Orioles could pounce.
You'd like to see them go for an innings-eater like Arroyo, because there's no question their rotation has questions. The O's, though, can't afford to overextend themselves, because they're already trending toward a $100 million payroll, even with the absence of significant additions.
The crunch was scheduled. Jones is about to jump into the more cushiony portion of his backloaded extension, with a raise from $8.5 million last year to $13.33 million in each of the next two years (and salaries of $16 million, $16 million and $17 million, respectively, from 2016-18). Davis and Wieters are Scott Boras clients eligible for (and, ergo, expectant of) free agency after 2015. Hardy has but one season standing between him and free agency. Same goes for Markakis, another key contributor who will make $15.4 million this year.
These financial realities compelled the O's to take the difficult but, I'd argue, necessary step of jettisoning their closer, Johnson, to Oakland for Weeks and Minor League catcher David Freitas (an iffy package, though one that certainly beat the non-tender alternative). In the current climate, in which the save stat has become an increasingly costly commodity despite guys flaming out of the role about as quickly as they claim it, parting with Johnson at a time when he could clear $10 million in arbitration made all the sense in the world. Tommy Hunter could prove to be an excellent alternative, if the short sample of his relief career to date is any indication.
The concern, of course, is that an O's team that has made close games its calling card the past two years can't afford even the slightest bit of regression. Certainly not in the AL East. Last season, the Orioles played just 66 games against clubs with a losing record, and that stat isn't likely to take a giant leap in their favor in 2014.
"We're trying to paddle underneath the water," Showalter said at the Winter Meetings, "and stay up a little."
It was almost exactly one year ago when the O's, on the heels of their breakthrough 2012 campaign, extended the contracts of Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, locking arms with the pair through 2018. That's quite a commitment in today's sporting climate, and it gives the O's certainty as to who will be running the show (or, at least, who will be paid as if they're running the show) for the long haul.
But as the core contracts demonstrate, that's one of the very few areas of certainty the O's possess beyond the next couple years.
This reality could one day soon compel the O's to deal away Wieters, who wants Joe Mauer-like money, or Davis, whose late bloom will reap big arbitration rewards.
As it stands, the O's have spent this winter looking for ways to flesh out their core in financially reasonable ways. They will be more reliant than ever not just on health but on the efficiency that should be provided by one of the AL's better defensive alignments.
In another division, maybe that wouldn't be such a big deal. In the East, it's quite a gamble.
I like the Orioles to remain competitive in 2014. But I'll like them a lot more if they add another starter between now and Opening Day.