Orioles look like competitors this year, but future remains uncertain

With contract status of many key players up in air, club could look drastically different by end of next season

The weather is heating up and so are the Orioles hitters, which should make for a very entertaining summer in the wide-open American League East.

Enjoy it while you can.

The Orioles are looking more and more like the resourceful 2012 team that ended the franchise's 14-season playoff drought, and the addition of big-swinging Nelson Cruz has given the lineup additional swagger while the team works through a series of early season injuries.

Whether that means this is the year when the Orioles make a serious run at the World Series remains to be seen. There still are plenty of on-field issues that need to be resolved — most notably the consistency of the starting rotation — but there appears to be sufficient talent to compete for the division title.

Whether that will be the case a year from now also remains to be seen and appears to be in serious question.

There was a lot of talk during the run-up to spring training that the window of opportunity for the nucleus of the Orioles roster would soon begin to close because of the uncertain contract status of key position players J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis.

Throw in Cruz, whose one-year, $8 million contract now looks like baseball's biggest bargain this year, and you might want to keep your fingers out of the way, because that window just might slam shut at the end of this season.

It's possible — not probable, but possible — that the only current position regulars who will be in next year's Opening Day starting lineup will be Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop.

That's a doomsday scenario, of course, but it became more plausible when executive vice president Dan Duquette indicated earlier this month that the club does not plan to negotiate with its pending free agents during the season.

I don't know how that makes sense from the standpoint of organizational stability and the franchise's supposed commitment to produce a consistently competitive team, but Duquette has made enough smooth moves over the past 21/2 years to engender some confidence in his master plan. It just would be nice to know what it is.

Duquette expressed interest during the spring in signing Hardy to a contract extension, but he apparently didn't follow up, leaving one of the game's most productive shortstops wondering where he'll be after the July 31 trade deadline.

The Orioles have Davis under control through the 2015 season, so it's hard to imagine that he won't be around at this time next year unless Duquette already knows he won't be able to meet agent Scott Boras' contract demands and decides to repopulate the roster with a big winter trade.

The situation with Wieters is more complicated now that he is sidelined with an elbow injury and could require season-ending surgery. If that is the case, he might not be ready for Opening Day, but he likely still would play almost all of the 2015 season in Baltimore before becoming eligible for free agency.

Markakis also presents an uncertain picture, since this is the last guaranteed year of his contract, and he appears to be his old self again at the plate. He and the team hold mutual options for 2015, which means that he also could end up on the open market if the club does not intend to sign him to a multiyear extension.

Though Markakis has made it clear that he wants to play his whole career with the Orioles, he might not be willing to do that on a year-to-year basis if he continues to put up solid offensive numbers this season.

That's a lot of talent in flux, and it doesn't stop there.

Cruz might be the AL Most Valuable Player if the season were to end today. His value as a free agent will be tremendous if he continues to swing the bat the way he has through the first two months of the season.

Duquette looks like a genius for taking a chance on Cruz after he missed a big chunk of 2013 because of his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. Cruz has shown that he's a premier run-producer and has quickly become a fan favorite in Baltimore.

No doubt, these are the days that try a general manager's soul, but Duquette might be wise to try a little harder with Hardy to assure that he doesn't wind up standing in the spot currently occupied by the retiring Derek Jeter in New York.

That would be a big lose-lose for the Orioles, who currently have a waterproof defense that contributes mightily to their ability to compete in one of baseball's toughest divisions.

That's the one thing Duquette could do right now to keep the window open a little wider, and it would send a message to the other guys that the Orioles are not going to be content with just one more year of contention.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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