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Orioles in win-now mode for 2014 as Davis, Wieters, Hardy near free agency

BaseballMajor League BaseballBaltimore OriolesChris DavisMatt WietersUbaldo Jimenez

Leave it to Adam Jones to cut past any bromides about staying in the moment.

"It is going to be dicey to see what goes on in the next year, year and a half," says the Orioles' All-Star center fielder, preparing for another day's work at the club's spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla. "It will be real interesting this offseason, to be honest, because you have people being free agents and going into free agency [the following year]."

Maybe it seems premature to fret about the future when the present seems so promising for the 2014 Orioles, who evoke memories of past Baltimore contenders with their combination of power, sound glovework and young pitching.

Orioles fans waited 15 years for their team to be competitive again, and this is the payoff. But as is the case for many small- and mid-market franchises, the window to enjoy success might be narrow.

Four key everyday players — Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters — are scheduled to reach free agency after this season or next. The Orioles lack obvious replacements for any of the four, with Davis' power and Wieters' all-around play at catcher representing particularly scarce commodities.

Though the club has expressed interest in re-signing Davis and Wieters before they reach free agency after the 2015 season, both are represented by agent Scott Boras, who made his reputation seeking the most money possible on the open market.

Some analysts have already begun talking about the pair as midseason trade candidates should the Orioles get off to a slow start. And the future uncertainty has created an urgent interest in winning this season and next.

"The time is now, right?" says Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette.

Which is perhaps why fans seemed so depressed for much of the winter, as the club failed to sign any high-profile players. That all changed at the dawn of spring training, when the Orioles suddenly pounced on hard-throwing starter Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz for a combined $58 million.

"The second these guys came into the clubhouse, there was a whole new buzz," says Chris Tillman, who led the club in wins last season.

With Jimenez bolstering the team's weakest area, its starting rotation, and Cruz added to a lineup that led the majors in home runs in 2013, the Orioles seem like the contender fans so desperately wanted.

"I think they're in the mix," says John Hart, former general manager of the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers and now an MLB Network analyst. "The fact that they were willing to give up draft picks to get the guys they needed leads me to believe they're doing what they can to get back to the postseason right now. I think they've done a terrific job."

Hart went through a similar situation with the young core of the 1990s Indians and said he was cognizant of building the best teams he could around players such as Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome. He knew he wouldn't have them forever.

'Win-now mentality'

Ask the Orioles themselves about this window for contention and you get a mixed response.

"I think we all feel there is that small window," says Hardy, the All-Star shortstop entering the last year of his contract. "I think we all know the situation, but to put extra pressure on ourselves to make it this year or make it next year, that's just making it tough. I don't know if anyone is doing that."

Hardy knows whereof he speaks. He was part of a young core with the Milwaukee Brewers that never made the sustained contending run many expected.

Other players say they can't afford to dwell on the picture beyond this season.

"We look at it as a win-now mentality, but as far as any kind of window or time frame when we have to win, no, we don't look at that as players," Wieters says. "As players, this is the year we have to win. And that's not going to change next year. It's not going to change the year after that."

The catcher's words would certainly please manager Buck Showalter, who doesn't want his players fixating on the club's future makeup.

"With the players, I don't want that to permeate," Showalter says. "Sure, people talk about that because they perceive where something might end. But I look at every day as a beginning. I don't live in that world and I don't let the players live in it. And they don't. I don't think people realize, that's not a constant source of subject matter for them."

For much of the Orioles' 14-year run of losing, the club was not merely bad but perpetually in flux. Fans never got to bond with a core group of players as they had repeatedly during the franchise's long period of success between 1964 and 1983. Only second baseman Brian Roberts felt like any kind of constant.

That has changed in recent years, with Davis, Hardy, Markakis, Wieters and Jones forming a steady backbone and other stars, such as Manny Machado and Tillman, joining them from the farm. This is no mercenary band of free agents. It's a group of players either developed by the Orioles or acquired through savvy trades. Fans have watched each player grow into his current role and thus, the bonds feel deeper.

If this group does disintegrate at the end of next season, it will hurt in a different way than the lost seasons of the 2000s.

Many fans refuse to assume either Wieters or Davis will depart.

"To me, saying we have a two-year window to win is conceding that these two players are gone after 2015, which I think is a little ridiculous to say at this point in time," says Patrick Maher, a diehard fan from White Marsh.

Yet the possibility seems real, given Boras' involvement and owner Peter Angelos' historic reluctance to spend on the highest-profile free agents. Davis, especially, seems poised to command a massive deal given the growing scarcity of 40-home-run threats.

News on contract negotiations for Hardy, Davis and Wieters has been scarce.

"They're part of our team, and we'd like for them to be a part of our team for a long time, but we are preparing our team to be competitive for this year," Duquette says.

He adds that the Jimenez and Cruz signings were all about chasing a championship in 2014.

"When '15 gets here, we'll worry about '15, but we're trying to put as many resources into the 2014 team as we can so we can be competitive, Duquette says. "We made the choice to trade away one of our picks to get [starter] Bud Norris, who won 10 games. We made another choice to give away another one of our draft picks for Ubaldo Jimenez, who won 13 games. Our focus is on '14."

'An imbalanced system'

Despite the optimism created by their late flurry of moves, the Orioles appear to enter the season with many of the same strengths and weaknesses that defined them in 2012 and 2013.

They are, first and foremost, a power team, one that hit 24 more home runs than any other club in the major leagues last season. But for all its thump, the lineup lacks table setters with high on-base percentages. In 2013, for example, the Orioles hit 34 more home runs than the world champion Boston Red Sox but scored 108 fewer runs. The key difference? The Red Sox led the majors in on-base percentage while the Orioles ranked 19th. Among individual players, only Davis ranked among the top 80 in baseball in the statistic, and the Orioles' second best on-base guy, Nate McLouth, left for the Washington Nationals in free agency.

Cruz, the club's new outfielder and designated hitter, offers more of the same — a 25-30-homer threat with a career .327 on-base average.

Aside from power, the club's other key strength is defense. Whether you adhere to complicated defensive metrics or more traditional Gold Glove Award ballots, the Orioles excelled last season. In winning his first Gold Glove, Machado evoked comparisons to Brooks Robinson at third base. Virtually every regular contributed at least steady glovework, with Hardy and Jones winning their second and third Gold Gloves, respectively. No one expects the standard to lessen in 2014, especially if Machado can return quickly from offseason knee surgery.

Excellent defense was not enough to give the club above-average pitching. The Orioles finished 23rd in team ERA last season and 27th in starters' ERA. Even in 2012, when the Orioles pitched better overall, the starters ranked in the bottom third of the league in ERA.

Duquette demonstrated his concern for the rotation when he stepped outside the club's historical comfort zone to give Jimenez a four-year deal. The move carries plenty of risk. Jimenez ranked among the American League's best starters for much of last season, but as good as he was, he was at least that bad in 2012. Some scouts believe his complicated delivery will always lead to inconsistency.

Nonetheless, industry consensus deemed the signing a smart gamble. "I considered him the highest upside starter out there," Hart says.

If nothing else, the Orioles have a larger pool of appealing candidates for the rotation, with the season-opening quintet solidified and others, such as top prospect Kevin Gausman and South Korean signee Suk-min Yoon, in line if someone falters.

The bullpen is another area where the Orioles combine depth and uncertainty. The chief question: Will Tommy Hunter improve his performance against lefties enough to be a suitable replacement for traded closer Jim Johnson?

Perhaps most troubling to fans contemplating the loss of Davis and Wieters is the lack of obvious help coming from the Orioles' farm system. The system is hardly weak overall, but it's top-heavy, and the best prospects are almost all pitchers. The Orioles have used five of their past six first-round picks on pitchers. The best of those picks, Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, rank among the most intriguing young arms in the game.

On the offensive side, however, only second baseman Jonathan Schoop ranks among the club's best five prospects, according to Baseball America or ESPN's Keith Law. None of the minor leaguers are projected to approach Davis' power or the two-way contributions of Wieters and Hardy. And the Orioles will go without a first-round pick this year after sacrificing it to sign Jimenez.

"I can't think of another club that can roll out the top three arms they have," says Law, assessing the Orioles' prospects. "But their best bat is still Schoop, whom I love but whom there are still questions about. That's a sign of an imbalanced system."

Given the lack of offensive help on the way, Law applauded the Orioles' aggressiveness in trying to build a win-now team.

"They should feel an impetus to do something now, and they did," he says. "It was a nice job by them, waiting for guys to fall to them at the end of the offseason."

It's not as if the roster would become a wasteland sans Davis, Wieters and company. Neither Jones nor Machado will reach free agency until after the 2018 season. Jimenez and Tillman are scheduled to be around through 2017. The club's pitching prospects are the envy of most teams in baseball.

It's a long-term outlook Orioles fans would have killed for in, say, 2004.

The ideal would be to emulate the Orioles' division rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays, who have steadily reloaded around a small group of key players.

"There might be a window for this group," Hart says. "But I wouldn't rule out the idea of them being competitive well beyond that."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article. Connolly and Encina reported from Sarasota.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BaseballMajor League BaseballBaltimore OriolesChris DavisMatt WietersUbaldo Jimenez
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