Five issues facing the Orioles heading into spring training
The Orioles have had less-than-stellar winters in the past.
During the 2005-06 offseason, Miguel Tejada asked for a trade and Melvin Mora questioned the club's direction with the unforgettable line, "Who is going to pitch for us?"
Then, between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, president Andy MacPhail stepped down and a protracted search for his replacement was ridiculed nationally before the club settled on Dan Duquette, who hinted before the winter meetings that he was prepared to make a splash. He walked away that week with just left-handed pitcher Dana Eveland and Rule 5 infielder Ryan Flaherty (who, to be fair, has developed into a starting infielder for the Orioles).
But, even compared to those winters of discontent, this offseason qualifies as a doozy for the Orioles as pitchers and catchers officially report to Sarasota, Fla., for the start of spring training Thursday.
A quality team with obvious holes and money to spend has not yet made a significant addition, while trading one All-Star closer, backing out of a contract with another All-Star closer and seemingly deciding not to pay the going rate for various available major leaguers.
Perhaps this winter's foibles have struck fans more sharply than in the recent past because this club is widely considered talented enough to compete, but is lacking sufficient pitching to be a real force in the American League East. And there is a fear -- with free agency looming soon for several key players -- that the Orioles' window for competitiveness is closing.
Much of that disappointment in the offseason, however, soon will be swept away -- initially, anyway -- with the focus shifting to the upcoming season.
But there will be plenty of issues to watch and questions that need to be answered as the Orioles try to string together three consecutive winning full seasons for the first time since 1983 to 1985 -- the end of 18 straight winning campaigns that started in 1968. The club also finished above .500 from 1992 to 1994, but the third season was abbreviated due to the players' strike.
Here's a look at the five most important questions -- not including whether the club will add anyone else in February or March -- facing the Orioles as spring training begins.
-- Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun
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1. Will Manny Machado be ready to play third base on a regular basis?( Al Messerschmidt, Getty Images / September 23, 2013 )
This is the biggest question of the spring, and not just because it centers on the club's phenom, who had October knee surgery.
Machado's status will have an overall domino effect on the roster.
If the 21-year-old can be healthy and ready for Opening Day, then Ryan Flaherty likely will start at second base, and the Orioles will have one more spot for a utility infielder. But if Machado has to begin the season on the 15-day disabled list, the roster landscape changes.
Flaherty then would be the favorite to start at third base, which would open up second base for several candidates, including Jemile Weeks, who was acquired in the deal that sent closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics.
Weeks would compete with prospect Jonathan Schoop, veteran Alexi Casilla -- who signed a minor league deal to return this winter -- and several other minor league additions: Ivan De Jesus Jr., Cord Phelps and Alex Gonzalez.
One of those players would likely be the utility infielder, although Machado's status also will allow the club to get a long look at Rule 5 third baseman Michael Almanzar.
The 23-year-old Almanzar hasn't played above Double-A -- he hit 16 home runs for Portland in the Boston Red Sox organization last year -- so he's a long shot. But the Orioles like his power.
Another issue is whether Machado can return to full effectiveness without attempting to rush back.
The surgery he had usually takes four to six months for recovery, and though he is considered ahead of schedule, he is changing his stride. Basically, he's learning to run again in an attempt to limit the possibility of re-tearing the medial patellofemoral ligament in his left knee.
Without Machado, the Orioles' powerful lineup takes a bit of a hit, and the defense will certainly suffer. The sense is that he needs to play in games by mid-to-late March to be ready for Opening Day.
The Orioles, though, have to be careful putting too much of an emphasis on Machado. He's entering just his second full season in the majors and stumbled some in the second half last year (a .240 average, .277 on-base percentage and .370 slugging percentage, in comparison to a slash line of .310/.337/.470 in the first half).