While the Orioles were passing out presents to more than 100 school kids Tuesday during their annual OriolesREACH Holiday Party, baseball operations chief Dan Duquette and his staff were in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., trying to figure out a way to make the new year bright.
It’s starting to seem like an impossible task.
The New York Yankees shocked the baseball world — and shook the American League East — with the acquisition of major league home run king Giancarlo Stanton, which could end up affecting the Orioles in one of two ways.
It could create a heightened sense of urgency going forward and perhaps force the Orioles to rethink their newly reinforced reservations about signing free agents to rich long-term contracts. Or it could simply persuade them to throw up their hands and try to make do with what they’ve already got.
Based on Duquette’s comments during the first couple of days in Florida, it’s starting to sound as if the Orioles are about to climb into bed and pull the covers over their heads.
They’ve got a right to be hesitant about free agency right now. They just got out of the disastrous four-year contract they gave Ubaldo Jiménez before the start of the 2014 season and they’re starting to regret the giant contract they gave first baseman Chris Davis. Even the smaller deals that Mark Trumbo and Darren O’Day signed over the past two years have not yet produced the expected value.
Still, there are only a few avenues that lead to real improvement and the Orioles would be foolhardy to pre-emptively eliminate any of them. If you’re not interested in any of the top free-agent pitchers and you’re more likely to trade international slot money than look for the next Jonathan Schoop, how can you expect to have any chance to keep up with the Yankees and Boston Red Sox?
The Orioles don’t have the same revenue streams as their big-market rivals, but they’re not a poor franchise. If Duquette and ownership wanted to sign a Max Scherzer-type pitcher to a David Price-type contract, it wouldn’t exactly send them into foreclosure. They wouldn’t be in serious play for Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish right now, but they don’t have to broadcast that they’re not in the market for the top players.
It’s tough enough to get fans to show up as it is.
Can they make another Seth Smith kind of deal or two, wait for a couple of desperate spring training free agents this time around and hope to play meaningful games in September? It’s always possible, because Duquette proved that during his first five seasons here.
Is there the window open wide enough for that to happen with the Yankees’ youth movement ahead of schedule and their power potential now off the charts? Highly doubtful.
That’s why the rumor mill is starting to churn and Manny Machado trade talk is heating up. There’s always the possibility that the Orioles have quietly decided to hold on to some of the money they will save as some of their bigger contracts expire or mature for a real push to sign him, but even that would not make much logical sense.
If they open up in April with three more suspect pitchers behind Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, does anyone think Machado is going to seriously consider sticking around after the Yankees again average eight runs a game against the Orioles next season?
Manager Buck Showalter hinted during the MASN winter meetings show Tuesday that he might make Machado the everyday shortstop in 2018, which might make him a happier camper in Baltimore or simply improve his marketability as a free agent after the season.
Lest this all sound so hopeless, breakout outfielder Trey Mancini was upbeat when asked at Tuesday’s holiday party at Dave & Busters in Arundel Mills whether the Orioles could still compete with the Yankees in the wake of the Stanton’s arrival in New York.
He conceded that the Yankees “have a really good lineup, definitely. They’re going to be a tough team.” But he doesn’t think the Orioles will be overmatched.
“If you look at our lineup, we’ve got a really good lineup,” Mancini said. “The core group of guys on the team has been there for a long time. They’ve made the playoffs several times. I don’t see it that way. I see us having a very good chance to go in and have a great year.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.