As the Orioles prepared for last year's annual FanFest, it didn't seem to matter that the club had made only under-the-radar alterations to its roster. The organization was coming off its first winning season and first postseason appearance since 1997.
Ballyhooed signings or not, the majority of the fan base was downright giddy with the prospects of winning in 2013.
The Orioles did win — enough, anyway, to secure a second consecutive above-.500 season for the first time since 1996-1997.
Yet as the club heads into Saturday's FanFest, which runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Baltimore Convention Center, that giddiness seemingly has disappeared, like one of Chris Davis' long balls into the night.
That's due to a trying offseason that has been punctuated by no marquee signings; a trade of the club's veteran closer, Jim Johnson, to the Oakland Athletics for middle infielder Jemile Weeks and a minor league catcher; a couple of failed physicals, most notably by newly signed Tampa Bay Rays closer Grant Balfour; and the 25-game suspension of reliever Troy Patton, for testing positive for amphetamines in September.
The Orioles have made headlines this winter — just the wrong kind. And, arguably, with the loss of Johnson, and of left fielder Nate McLouth and starter Scott Feldman to free agency, they may have gone backward since September.
"Their offseason is right toward the bottom because there are still holes," said Yahoo Sports baseball columnist Jeff Passan, who ranked the Orioles 21st out of 30 teams for 2014 despite their 85-win season and third-place finish in the American League East last year. "There are enough holes on this team that can drag down the best parts of it. ... And the Orioles have done absolutely nothing this offseason."
To be fair, the Orioles have done plenty of little things. A head-spinning number of moves, in fact. They have made 13 additions to their 40-man roster since the end of last season; a two-year, $4.5 million deal with reliever Ryan Webb, who had been nontendered by the Miami Marlins, qualifies as the biggest acquisition.
They also have signed nearly 20 six-year, minor league free agents, among the most in baseball. And with several high-profile, big-league free agents still unsigned, the Orioles could bolster their roster before spring training begins in two weeks or before Opening Day on March 31.
"We have some more work to do, and we acknowledge it," executive vice president Dan Duquette said earlier this week.
Duquette's focus has been on improving the starting rotation, although nothing has come to fruition yet. He has, however, added Webb, Weeks, catcher Johnny Monell, and outfielders David Lough, Francisco Peguero and Delmon Young, who all have a chance to make the 2014 major league team out of spring training.
And he believes the club's improving farm system, which has received positive grades from several publications this year, will help supplement the major league club. He points to pitchers such as Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Eduardo Rodriguez, Mike Wright and Tim Berry, among others, as talented pitchers waiting in the wings.
"The young pitching is coming along, and hopefully our developmental program will keep it coming to help our major league team," Duquette said. "Time will tell. But it is encouraging to see other people [outside of the organization] recognize that."
That is certain to be a point of emphasis at this year's FanFest when Duquette takes the microphone and addresses fans' questions. Although many want to see the club's obvious holes filled with proven big leaguers — starters Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are all available, as is closer Fernando Rodney, plus designated-hitter types Kendrys Morales and Nelson Cruz — Duquette is sure to talk about building through the farm system.
He's championed international prospects such as infielder Jonathan Schoop and Henry Urrutia and, on Thursday, held a teleconference to discuss the signing of two teenage corner infielders, Carlos Diaz of Mexico and Jomar Reyes of the Dominican Republic.
And although building from within is important for a team that's not going to compete financially with division rivals such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, critics say the Orioles are missing their real chance to compete now.
"Their core is good enough where, if they brought in a couple of complementary pieces — and I'm not talking guys like Robinson Cano and Masahiro Tanaka — but even an innings-eating starter and a second baseman worth his salt, then, all of a sudden, I think this could be a really competitive team," Passan said. "But they haven't done that and they don't seem primed to do that."
"So what you're left with is a team with a very short window, especially if Chris Davis and Matt Wieters aren't signing long-term extensions," Passan added, referencing the two Orioles stars who will be free agents after 2015. "And it's a team that in that short of a window seems to have at least one year, in 2014, in which it is going to have a really difficult time fulfilling the promise of the few because the many just aren't good enough."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter understands the criticism, especially of a starting rotation that was among the worst in the AL last year in ERA. But he believes healthy and full seasons from Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris, along with another strong year from Chris Tillman, certainly would make the club more competitive. And there's always X-factors such as Gausman, Zach Britton and Steve Johnson, among others.
"We need someone to pop like Tillman popped last year," Showalter said. "And if we could get a couple of them to pop at the same time, well, then we'll have some fun this summer."
With all the focus on what they didn't do this winter, at least one interested observer thinks there should be more of a concentration on what they do have. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said he believes the Orioles will be a 90-win team again in 2014, simply because the club's nucleus — Adam Jones, Davis, Wieters, Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis and Tillman — is strong and, in some cases, still improving.
"I really like their players on the field and I think they have some good players coming up," Maddon said. "I have a lot of confidence that Buck is going to be able to piece that pitching together to the point where they can be successful."
Maddon, whose club is only one of two in baseball that has won at least 90 games each of the past four seasons, says the Orioles' attitude is just as important as their talent. And that's the kind of thing that doesn't show up in the offseason but is crucial during the year, he said.
"They've really grown an attitude about the way they play. I think that's why I respect them so much and I think that's why they will hover around that number of 90 [wins] the way we have been able to do," Maddon said.
"In a lot of ways, they remind me of us, of how they play the game and how they approach things on a daily basis. They are never out of it. They care. And that's the way they have been the last couple of years."
Orioles FanFest 2014
Time: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET
Tickets: Adults, $12; children 14 and under and fans 55 and over, $6
Parking: Free parking for all fans is available in Lot B/C
Note: Individual game tickets for the 2014 season will go on sale at 10 a.m. Fans may purchase tickets online at orioles.com, the Baltimore Convention Center or the Orioles box office at the north end of the Warehouse throughout the day. Tickets will also be available via phone at 1-888-848-BIRD.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun