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Orioles must weigh competitive future in decision to pursue Yovani Gallardo, Dexter Fowler

Peter Schmuck examines the Orioles' decision at hand: Keeping draft picks vs. signing Gallardo, Fowler.

No one can say the Orioles haven't made an unprecedented effort to field a contending team for 2016, but there is much more than that at stake as the front office works to add more talent before pitchers and catchers report to spring training Thursday.

The competitive future of the franchise figures to hang in the balance whether Dan Duquette completes deals for veteran pitcher Yovani Gallardo and outfielder Dexter Fowler or ends up holding tight to the large number of top-100 picks the Orioles currently are entitled to in this summer's draft.

The decision to forfeit their top two selections to sign players who rejected qualifying offers would inhibit the Orioles' attempt to repopulate a minor league system that isn't getting a whole lot of respect these days. The Orioles would again be mortgaging the future to compete more effectively in the present, much as they did on the way to the American League Championship Series two years ago.

Of course, that was the right decision at the time, because the end clearly justified the means. Whether it would be the right decision this time depends both on the outcome of the season and on the ability of the Orioles to make the most of their remaining 2016 draft choices.

First and foremost, the Orioles need to succeed this summer because of the huge investment that ownership has made in the team this winter. The payroll already is in record territory and it could rise to nearly $150 million if the club signs both Gallardo and Fowler to fill the remaining two holes on the roster.

If the Orioles fail to reach the playoffs, it will be just that much tougher for the front office to upgrade the team next winter and beyond, since it's fairly obvious that owner Peter Angelos has decided to step out of character and make a major push to reach the World Series now. He's going to need a lot of positive reinforcement to step up again next year to try to sign Manny Machado to what promises to be a massive long-term deal.

This might explain the widely held impression that the front office has made a philosophical about-face with regard to this year's potential draft haul. However, no one needs to justify the effort to maintain organizational momentum after a four-year span during which the Orioles have won more regular-season games than any other AL team.

The reasoning, risk and possible reward should be obvious. The Orioles aren't far enough removed from their discouraging string of 14 straight losing seasons for fans to happily accept a rebuilding effort in the absence of at least one World Series appearance. But the club entered this winter facing that possibility with four key free agents unsigned and seemingly headed elsewhere.

The narrative started to change when Matt Wieters accepted the Orioles' qualifying offer and kept hope alive that a big chunk of the nucleus of the team could be preserved. The re-signing of setup specialist Darren O'Day was the first proactive move in that direction and the $161 million deal given to first baseman Chris Davis proved to the fan base that Angelos was serious about keeping his team in the playoff hunt in 2016.

Still, all that and the addition of slugger Mark Trumbo and South Korean outfielder Hyun-soo Kim didn't make the Orioles appreciably better than they were on the way to a .500 record last season. That left the front office needing to decide whether to keep its draft picks and gamble on an across-the-board improvement in the starting rotation or spend more money while making a significant sacrifice on the player development end.

Considering how far they have come this winter, that choice now appears obvious. The Orioles seem close to signing at least Gallardo and possibly both free agents in the next few days, which would definitely make them better on paper even as it paints them into something of a competitive corner this season.

Failure will not be an option.

Where it might put them in five years is difficult to predict. But they were already close to going all in, so there's no sense stopping now.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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