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Five questions on the 2012 Orioles

BaseballBaltimore OriolesMergers, Acquisitions and TakeoversBuck ShowalterTexas RangersLuke ScottRyan Dempster

The big question swirling around the Orioles right now is what happens with the club's top executive post and, subsequently, its manager.

There was no more clarity on the situation Friday. The belief remains that president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail will step down, but that club owner Peter Angelos wants MacPhail to stay, at least in some capacity.

Since an official decision involving that spot has not been revealed, there's been no movement on the flip side: Whether manager Buck Showalter would assume president/general manager duties or remain in the dugout. Showalter is expected to meet with his family this weekend to discuss his options.

With all that uncertainty, it's easy to forget about the team itself, now that the season has ended with another losing campaign. The truth is there is plenty of work to do this offseason to try and improve the on-field product. Here's a look at five important questions concerning the 2012 Orioles, no matter who is in charge.

Who plays corner infield?

Once this is answered, we'll have a better idea as to the direction of the club. As it stands, Mark Reynolds starts at first and Chris Davis is the starting third baseman. Josh Bell, 24, who was once considered the third baseman of the future, hit just .164 with 25 strikeouts in 61 at-bats and doesn't seem to be in the club's big league plans.

The jury is also out on the 25-year-old Davis, who the Orioles acquired in the deal that sent Koji Uehara to the Texas Rangers in July. He hit .276 in 31 games, but only homered twice in 123 at-bats. A prodigious slugger in the minors, the Orioles know he can play defense, but he has to hit consistently in the majors.

The Orioles may not want to leave that to chance — so one of their priorities is to buy a middle-of-the-order bat. And they'd be best served if that slugger played corner infield.

The sexy names are Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, both exceptional longshots to come here. Michael Cuddyer, who can play corner infield and outfield, and first baseman Carlos Pena could be on the radar. Besides the enigmatic Aramis Ramirez and the unheralded Wilson Betemit, the free-agent third base market looks to be exceptionally thin.

Signing a free-agent first baseman could mean a move back to third for Reynolds, who made 26 errors in 114 games there this season. He might be best suited as a designated hitter, but he's not eager to try it. It's possible he could be on the trade block after hitting 37 homers since he's signed only through 2012 (with a 2013 option).

Robert Andino is probably the club's best defensive third baseman, but he may be needed at second base and he doesn't have the power usually associated with a corner infielder.

Will Brian Roberts play in 2012?

He is hopeful that he will. So is his concussion specialist. But the reality is Roberts thought he'd play shortly after suffering his second concussion in eight months on May 16. And he never again suited up in 2011.

Roberts, who turns 34 in October, played only 98 games over the past two seasons. He has $20 million and two years remaining on his contract, so the Orioles will give him the chance to make a comeback.

The problem is that his limbo status affects what the Orioles can do in free agency. A second baseman or a leadoff hitter won't want to sign here if he thinks he'll be playing second fiddle to Roberts, who will assume those roles if healthy.

In a perfect world, Roberts starts at second and Andino becomes a super-sub and the ultimate insurance policy if Roberts or shortstop J.J. Hardy gets injured or the third base option falters. Instead, Andino has to be penciled in as the starting second baseman.

Really, the Orioles should go forward with offseason plans as if Roberts will not be available — and treat it as a pleasant dilemma if he can play.

Who closes in 2012?

There are two schools of thought here: One, a closer is a luxury on a bad team and the Orioles currently project that way in 2012 despite their strong finish; Two, nothing is more deflating than losing a game you should have won, and a good closer can instill confidence in an entire staff.

It's really no secret that the club's best closing option, as the roster currently is assembled, is Jim Johnson. He seized the role in September and has always had the stuff. It now appears he has the mindset, too.

But Johnson also has the confidence and stuff to be a starter — and Orioles manager Buck Showalter is intrigued by that possibility, especially with a rotation in complete flux.

That would hand the closer reins back to Kevin Gregg, who blew seven of 29 opportunities in 2011. He is owed $5.8 million next year guaranteed, so he'll be back. And, as is his nature, he wants the ball in key situations.

A longshot would be Pedro Strop, who closed for Triple-A Round Rock before the Orioles acquired him in August from the Texas Rangers. He consistently throws his fastball at 96 mph and was scored on just once in 12 games (0.73 ERA) for the Orioles.

It would be a surprise if the club attempted to buy another closer through free agency. They tried that each of the past two seasons (Michael Gonzalez and Gregg) and it didn't work out as planned.

Who is in the rotation?

Amazingly, the only set member right now is probably 25-year-old Tommy Hunter, another player acquired from Texas this year. Jeremy Guthrie, the club's de facto ace, would be, but he is heading toward his final season before free agency and will make $6 million-plus in arbitration.

That means Guthrie is likely on the trade block, though that has been the case for nearly two years and he keeps returning and throwing 200-plus innings.

Lefty Zach Britton is also likely in the 2012 rotation unless several other options are added. The 23-year-old had an uneven but relatively successful rookie campaign in which he was 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA in 28 starts. Righty Jake Arrieta can also be penciled in, assuming he comes back successfully from surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow.

There are plenty of other possibilities such as Brian Matusz, who was the Orioles' No. 2 starter this spring but struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness and posted the worst ERA (10.69) in baseball history for anyone with 10 or more starts in a season. Other candidates include Alfredo Simon, Chris Tillman and Jo-Jo Reyes, to name a few.

Given that list, it's obvious the Orioles will scour the free-agent and trade markets for starting pitching — but so will every other team in baseball. The most coveted free-agent starter, Texas' C.J. Wilson, has a strong history with Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair. But he'll also likely command a lucrative five-year deal, which probably will be too long and too expensive for the Orioles' tastes.

The Chicago White Sox's Mark Buehrle is also an intriguing option. After him, the list thins considerably, though Roy Oswalt, Ryan Dempster and even CC Sabathia could end up as free agents.

Does Luke Scott stay with the Orioles?

Vladimir Guerrero is the Orioles' only pending free agent with name value, and the designated hitter is almost certainly gone after one season in Baltimore.

But the most recognizable name to possibly leave the team this offseason is outfielder Luke Scott, who was the Most Valuable Oriole in 2010 when he hit 27 homers. Because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder, which he eventually had surgically repaired, Scott was limited to just 64 games and his power was sapped — hitting just nine homers in 209 at-bats.

Despite his outspokenness on various subjects, Scott became a clubhouse and fan favorite for his enthusiastic approach to baseball and to life. So in a perfect world, the Orioles would like to have the 33-year-old back as a DH-left fielder and a left-handed run producer.

He made $6.4 million in 2011 and could receive more than $7 million through arbitration, which the Orioles view as way too much for an aging hitter coming off surgery.

The most likely scenario is that the Orioles don't tender Scott a contract, but try to re-sign him to a lesser salary. Scott may bite, since he genuinely loves Baltimore and his teammates and he'll be viewed by other teams as an injury risk. An incredibly hard worker, Scott expects to be ready for spring training, wherever it is.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

twitter.com/danconnollysun

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BaseballBaltimore OriolesMergers, Acquisitions and TakeoversBuck ShowalterTexas RangersLuke ScottRyan Dempster
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