Schmuck: Orioles need to figure out if this is the end of an era or the beginning of one

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Orioles intend to arrive at spring training with much the same team that finished at the bottom of the American League East standings in 2017, which would make about as much sense as holding FanFest in Finland.

There will be a few obvious changes, such as the departure of a few erratic starting pitchers and the arrival of some new project players, but it seems pretty clear that ownership isn’t going to pop for any of the top-priced free-agent pitchers who could really help bridge the club’s glaring rotation gap.

They’re still out there and there’s still time to change course this winter if the front office wants to alter a discouraging narrative that points to 2018 as the bitter end of the largely successful Buck Showalter-Dan Duquette era instead of a new beginning.

Nobody wants to talk about a total rebuild, and the Orioles don’t have to go that far, but they need to get more than a draft choice for Manny Machado if they’re not going to make a strong attempt to re-sign him either now or at the end of the season.

That Duquette went to the winter meetings to shop Machado should tell you that the organization has already decided that it is not willing to compete in a free-agent market that might award its most prized player more than $300 million next winter.

Now, it’s a matter of what the team would settle for in a trade or if Duquette is willing to keep Machado through his final season under club control and risk getting only a compensation pick in return.

What this really comes down to is whether the team has any coherent plan for the next several seasons, since it appears that Duquette — in his last guaranteed year as executive vice president — is simply rounding up the usual suspects and heading into 2018 with the same approach he has employed throughout his Orioles tenure.

If so, he can make a case for that based on the fact that he has had only one losing season in his six years with the club and had the best regular-season record of any AL team through the first five of those seasons.

Here’s why it’s still a bad idea. Considering the strength of the current team relative to the rest of the division, the Orioles would be much better served by treating 2018 as if it’s the first year of a developing team instead of the last year of a dismantling one.

Keeping Machado throughout the season without a legitimate chance of extending his contract is unlikely to get the Orioles back to the playoffs. It is more likely to be a season-long distraction that simply leaves the team facing the same situation in 2019 with blooming star Jonathan Schoop.

Obviously, nobody knocked Duquette’s socks off at the winter meetings. He was looking for a deal that included two major league-ready pitchers and a couple of prospects. He should be willing to settle for one decent young starter and some real minor league talent, which would put him in position to either sign or acquire another starter and make good on his desire to fix the rotation.

Also, relieved of the theoretical $300 million elephant in the room, the Orioles could consider one of the power-hitting third basemen on the market and try to extend Schoop before his situation becomes similarly unmanageable.

That would be far from a major rebuild, but it could open a new five-year window while making the Orioles more competitive than they were last year.

The alternative is to let the widening talent gap between themselves and their big-market rivals keep getting wider and hope Showalter can magically transform a declining team back into a contender without any meaningful help from outside the organization.

Maybe Duquette will wait out the free-agent market and pull off some February surprises that change the competitive landscape. He has changed their luck before, but the Orioles can’t afford to leave 2018 — and their long-term future — to chance.

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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