5 questions heading into the Orioles' offseason
The Orioles' participation in the 2012 playoffs wasn't just surprising; it was illuminating. It demonstrated how far the club had come this year and also what it needs to do to get back to the postseason -- and last longer -- in 2013.
No one -- at least no one whose paycheck doesn't have a bird on it -- could have predicted that these Orioles would win 93 regular season games and three more in the postseason.
But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. And losing to the New York Yankees in five games in the American League Division Series highlighted the club's deficiencies as well as its strengths.
The Orioles need to become less one-dimensional offensively. And, like most teams, they lack an ace that will grab the ball in clutch situations and pitch deep into games, sparing the bullpen while frustrating the opposition.
So with that in mind, here are the club's five biggest questions heading into the offseason and our best attempt to answer them:
-- Dan Connolly
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Which pending free agents will they attempt to keep?
The big three are Nate McLouth, Jim Thome, and Joe Saunders. There are other pending free agents such as Endy Chavez, Randy Wolf, Bill Hall and Nick Johnson, but they're not in the future plans. The Orioles have a $1 million option (with a $100,000 buyout) for reliever Luis Ayala. It would be a surprise if they didn't pick it up considering Ayala pitched to a 2.64 ERA in 64 games this year.
The Orioles loved Thome's leadership and calming presence. But, at 42, his body is breaking down and his role is limited. Duquette doesn't seem to make emotional decisions, so Thome probably isn't back. But he could be if the price and situation are right.
Saunders, 31, is an interesting call. He is a Northern Virginia native who grew up an Orioles fan. And they tried to sign him as a free agent last winter before he re-upped with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He has a career ERA of 4.15 and is widely considered a back-end starter. But he was solid for the Orioles, going 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA in seven starts after they acquired him in August. And he excelled in the postseason with a 1.59 ERA in starts at Texas and New York.
Saunders said he'd like to return and he'd be a great guy to have around, but the Orioles have to decide whether they are buying a veteran anchor or a fourth starter. And certainly there will be a market for Saunders this winter.
McLouth, 30, was arguably the most important late addition made by Duquette. He took over left field, then seized the leadoff spot when Nick Markakis broke his thumb. He had a .342 on-base percentage with seven homers and 12 stolen bases in 55 regular season games for the Orioles and was the only one who brought his bat to the postseason.
When asked if he wanted to return to Baltimore in 2013, McLouth said, "of course." But there are complications. Markakis and Nolan Reimold are expected back from injuries, and that could limit McLouth's role. And, after failing as a fourth outfielder in Pittsburgh this year, he wants to play every day. He proved that he could handle that responsibility with the Orioles. In this instance, money may not be the issue; guaranteed playing time could be.