Baseball's free agent market is open for business, and it always starts with the Orioles facing the same question.
Is this the year that they hurl caution to the wind and throw around some real money to get over the top in the American League East?
Manager Buck Showalter pondered that possibility in an interview session on Friday night, and his response probably isn't going to warm the hearts of O's fans who have been fantasizing about Robinson Cano or Jacoby Ellsbury.
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"At what price … at the expense of not having [Matt] Wieters or [J.J.] Hardy or [Chris] Davis or [Nick] Markakis?'' he said. "I like our guys. I don't covet a lot of people's players. I don't. It's a lot more fun doing it this way. It may require a little more confidence in the process you have to have. We didn't get where we got overnight. We need to have another good, competitive year. I know where I want it to end."
That would be next year's World Series, of course, but is that realistic barring outside improvement after a season in which the starting rotation suffered from a chronic innings shortage and the homer-happy starting lineup too often was one key single short in a tight game?
Showalter thinks it is, but only after explaining just how much work will be required to solidify the starting rotation, which he hopes will be the secret to next year's success.
"Yeah. How else would I look at it?,'' he said "That's my job. I look at best-case scenarios. Take a look back at St. Louis's starting pitchers this year and what was thought of them last year. The kid that was at [Texas] A&M (Game 6 starter Michael Wacha). What was the other guy who won 15 games? (Shelby Miller). They were sitting at a table talking about them like this last year."
The Orioles are hoping that Kevin Gausman, who was chosen 14 slots ahead of Wacha in the 2012 draft, is ready to pop. They have some ideas about tweaking the repertoire of Wei-Yin Chen. They're very high on left-handed prospect Eduardo Rodriguez, though it would be quite a leap to put him in the major league rotation next season.
Showalter conceded that the rotation could use "a presence," but seemed skeptical that any of the top free agent starters in this year's market would fit that description at a reasonable price.
Back when he was introduced as Orioles manager, Showalter said that he was assured by owner Peter Angelos that when the team was close enough to the mountaintop he would be able to say "Let's go" and the franchise would move aggressively to put the final pieces in place for a World Series run.
So, it's fair to ask whether this is a "Let's go" moment, but Showalter isn't ready to swing at that pitch.
"Part of the problem is, are there 'Let's go' people [in this market]," he said.
The Orioles have made a habit during the Dan Duquette era of looking past the top-name pitchers in the market and trying to identify guys with untapped upside who don't command huge, long-term contracts. In a market that features no truly elite starters — but several who will get big multi-year deals — that's probably not a bad strategy for a team that's unwilling to ramp up to a top-10 payroll.
That won't satisfy fans who believe that Angelos is hoarding the team's growing revenue, but Showalter and Duquette seem to enjoy trying to prove they can compete with the big-money teams on a middle-market budget.
"I'm trying to stay focused from within," Showalter said. "But I do feel very confident that if we have to do something that, financially, we'll do what needs to be done. I've never really had Peter say no, but I'm not a guy who asks for a lot either.
"There's somebody in that free agent market that nobody is going to be that hot and heavy after that at the end of next year, they're going to go 'Golly, what a great pickup. How did they know that?' That's kind of what we're into right now. Me, I'm looking to what we've got from within."
Maybe that sounds like the same old song and dance, but Showalter's track record building winners is hard to ignore. He also has a habit of making history repeat itself, as he did when he engineered the great turnaround of 2012, something he had done in his second full year as manager in each of his previous three major league jobs.
If you want something like that to hang your hat on for 2014, the only other time Showalter managed a team to a "disappointing" 85-77 record (before last season), the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series the following year, though he didn't get there with them.
Showalter pondered that for a moment and joked that there was only one logical conclusion to draw from it.
"I should leave,'' he said.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.