The Orioles head into free agency — which starts in earnest Saturday with free agents permitted to negotiate with all 30 teams for the first time this offseason — in a much different situation than this time last year.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette, who wasn't officially hired until last Nov. 8, is not only in place as club's decision-maker, but he seems to be established as a man with a plan.
Instead of trying to fill holes after another disaster of a season, Duquette and company are charged this offseason with continuing the momentum from a surprising and inspiring 2012, in which the Orioles made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
"We have a lot more depth for our team now, but we have more work to do to accomplish our goals," Duquette said. "Every year is tough. Every year is a challenge."
Managing Partner Peter G. Angelos, who has purposely avoided the spotlight in the past few years, made a point of telling his players and the media after Game 5 of the American League Division Series that he'll do what he can to make sure the club returns to the postseason in 2013.
And, for the first time in years, Baltimore looks to be an attractive destination for potential free agents: a playoff club with a young, talented nucleus, a seemingly re-energized fan base and a home park that remains one of baseball's best.
Yet, Duquette — and Andy MacPhail before him — got to this point by not buying big-time free agents, but instead through trades and sensible, under-the radar purchases as well as doling out contract extensions to their own keepers.
Duquette has gone on record as saying his plan to target undervalued assets and build through the farm system is not wavering, an indication that the Orioles' current holes on offense and the pitching staff will not be filled by available superstars such as Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke.
"We're going to continue to build our team; free agency is just one of the ways to do it," Duquette said. "We'll continue to look at all of the different markets and the different ways to add to our ballclub."
Duquette has shown in the past year, however, that he is not exactly predictable. He's also not one to share his blueprints with the media, so speculation will run rampant again this offseason and the Orioles likely won't make many — if any — acquisitions that will grab national headlines. But it's likely they'll be busy tweaking the 40-man roster, attempting to find the next Miguel Gonzalez or Nate McLouth or Lew Ford.
Here's a look at the Orioles' needs and how they could be filled in the following months.
The left side is set. Manny Machado will return as the incumbent at third base, despite his status as shortstop of the future. J.J. Hardy, shortstop of the present, will hold down that post for another year.
Second base was the most obvious spot for an upgrade and, right now, it's also the most crowded position. Robert Andino and Ryan Flaherty ended the season in a platoon. Andino is viewed more as a super-utility player and Flaherty, a rookie in 2012, made strides defensively, but is still learning the position. Little-used Omar Quintanilla also is the 40-man roster.
Brian Roberts hopes to return from hip surgery, but turned 35 in October and has played just 115 games in the past three years. He can't be counted on as a starter at this point. Given the muddled second base situation, the Orioles claimed 28-year-old infielder Alexi Casilla off waivers from the Minnesota Twins on Friday.
Duquette said the speedy Casilla, who batted .241 with 21 steals in 22 attempts last season for the Twins, "should be able to be in that (second base) mix" in 2013. With the Casilla acquisition, Duquette said Friday he didn't expect to actively pursue a second baseman in free agency.
The free agent class at second base is exceptionally weak. The most intriguing player is 32-year-old Jeff Keppinger, who batted .325 with a .367 on-base percentage for the Tampa Bay Rays last year. Far from a star, Keppinger is a solid veteran who plays the game right and can move around the infield if needed.
The Orioles' biggest infield dilemma is at first base, where Mark Reynolds excelled defensively. The club may decide not to tender a contract to the arbitration-eligible Reynolds and allow him to test free agency instead of paying him in the $9 million range in 2013. If they can't re-negotiate a multi-year, lower-annual-salary contract with Reynolds, they could settle on Chris Davis as the everyday first baseman and add another bat that could share time at designated hitter with Wilson Betemit.
First base is also weak for free agents. Kevin Youkilis, whose option wasn't picked up by the Chicago White Sox, has battled injuries recently and isn't the same offensive or defensive player that he was when he starred for the Boston Red Sox. But Duquette drafted him more than a decade ago, and the Orioles, if assured he is healthy, may at least inquire about the high-intensity infielder with the penchant for getting on base.
Other free agent first basemen include Carlos Pena, Carlos Lee and Adam LaRoche, if he is not re-signed — as expected — by the Washington Nationals.
Assuming right fielder Nick Markakis recovers from a broken thumb — and he is progressing well — right and center (Adam Jones) are locked up. That leaves a big question in left field.
Nolan Reimold started the season there and excelled for a month until he was lost for the season with a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery. The club hopes to have him back by spring training.
McLouth ended the season in left and provided great defense and a steady presence atop the lineup. He's a free agent and, though the Orioles would like to re-sign him, he wants to play full-time and that opportunity may not be available if Reimold returns. So he could seek a less complicated route to playing time.
Outfield is the strongest position on the market, featuring such solid players as Torii Hunter, Shane Victorino and Nick Swisher, all competent veterans with a history of getting on base and playing for winning clubs. Swisher may be the best fit of all, because he also can play first base. But he won't come cheaply, and his outgoing personality is an acquired taste.
Hamilton, a perennial MVP candidate, is also an unrestricted free agent, but his expected price tag, his checkered past and the fact the Orioles would lose a first-round pick if they signed him make Hamilton a pretty big risk — and therefore a huge long shot.
If the Orioles do make any splash offensively, it likely would be at left field. And, in that sense, Hunter and Swisher, in particular, would have to be considered.
The Orioles are set at starting catcher with 26-year-old Matt Wieters, and they were pleased enough with backup Taylor Teagarden, who provided solid defense, occasional offensive pop and accepted his role as a reserve without complaint.
The only way they upgrade at catcher on the major league market is if they could convince an established catcher to play first base, DH and spell Wieters on occasion behind the plate.
Mike Napoli and A.J. Pierzynski could fit into that role, but both likely would prefer to be the primary catcher on a team and play other positions occasionally.
Jim Thome was the club's primary designated hitter at the end of the season. The 42-year-old likely Hall of Famer was a great clubhouse presence, but the likelihood of him returning depends on whether he wants to play again and whether the Orioles want to clog the DH with one player — something manager Buck Showalter prefers to avoid.
Numbers-wise, the Orioles are set here with plenty of rotation options, including Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz, among others. Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are waiting in the wings and the club is interested in bringing back lefty free agent Joe Saunders, who excelled in the playoffs.
But both Duquette and Showalter subscribe to the theory that a team never has enough starting pitching. The club likely will kick tires on myriad starters — there's a fairly deep list that includes Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, Shaun Marcum, Joe Blanton and possibly Hiroki Kuroda.
But if the starting market is inflated as usual, the Orioles and Duquette — who don't like to offer contracts of more than three years to pitchers — may pass and look to secure below-the-radar starters on one-year deals.
There's only one ace available this offseason: Greinke, who won a Cy Young in 2009 with the Kansas City Royals. The Orioles need a No. 1 pitcher, but unless his value dips, he likely is too pricey for the club to seriously consider.
This was the Orioles' strength, and they will probably build on it with smaller acquisitions, with most probably coming on short or minor-league deals. Duquette believes in gathering depth, and there will be quality relievers — like Luis Ayala last year — that fall through the cracks and can be signed relatively cheaply in late January or early February.
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