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There was a moment

during Dan Duquette's question-and-answer session at FanFest, the annual winter gathering with Orioles players and officials, when he spoke in a particularly frank way uncommon for baseball GMs, a group as notorious as politicians for saying things without really saying anything.

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Duquette, the executive vice president of Baseball Operations who brought playoff baseball back to Baltimore, gave the hard truth: The Orioles will never be the Yankees or the Dodgers, because they never can be.

"If people have the expectation that we're going to sign a lot of high-profile free agents and that's going to be the answer, that is not who the Orioles are about,''

The Sun

quoted him as saying. "We're going to have a good, solid player development operation. That's going to be the core of our ballclub."

Sun

columnist Peter Schmuck praised Duquette for "being brutally honest."

"The long-held notion that all that Mid-Atlantic Sports Network revenue was going to kick in and put the Orioles in play for the top stars on the free-agent market was always just a fantasy," he wrote.

It would be foolish to think it can be 1998 all over again, when the team had the highest payroll in the game. The economics of Major League Baseball have changed so much since then, with free-agent contracts getting increasingly larger and TV deals and market share playing a bigger role than ever in a team's balance sheet.

But there was a palpable frustration at FanFest over the Orioles. It's two years since the team's first winning campaign and playoff appearance in 15 seasons and one year after they were in the hunt for the division well into August. With the front office's inactivity in the offseason up to that point, a lot of fans thought the O's were blowing a golden opportunity to make a deep run in the playoffs in 2014 by not adding to the core group of players like center fielder Adam Jones, third baseman Manny Machado, shortstop J.J. Hardy, first baseman Chris Davis, catcher Matt Wieters, and starting pitcher Chris Tillman. By Feb. 1, the day Duquette was onstage, the team had only made minor moves, despite assurances that the team's payroll could eventually go up to $100 million.

Reached by phone this month while driving to watch the Orioles play the Twins in a spring-training game, Duquette says he wanted to level with the faithful at FanFest. "I wanted to keep them apprised about what our intentions were," he says. "We told the fans in the offseason we wanted to sign a couple of veteran pitchers to help our staff and that we also wanted to upgrade our lineup. We signed some lower-level-well, I wouldn't say lower-level-free agents, but I think the fan's expectations were that we would add experienced players to the team, and up to that point we hadn't been able to sign a couple [of those] players."

Finally, several weeks after FanFest, the spigot opened.

It began on Feb. 17, with the signing of 27-year-old right-handed pitcher Suk-min Yoon out of South Korea's professional league, the Korea Baseball Organization, to a three-year, $5.575 million deal that could go up to just over $13 million if Yoon makes the bulk of his appearances as a starter.

That same day, the Orioles agreed to terms with 30-year-old righty Ubaldo Jiménez on a four-year, $48 million deal, the longest contract given to a free-agent pitcher in franchise history and the most guaranteed money the club spent in free agency since acquiring shortstop Miguel Tejada in 2004.

A little over a week later, the O's brought on veteran slugger Nelson Cruz, 33, for a one-year deal.

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As promised, the payroll is right around that $100 million figure put out there by the man constructing the team. So what changed?

For one, Duquette says the early winter inactivity was only a sign the organization was waiting for the right deal to come along, not any sort of change in philosophy.

"If we had signed Jiménez in December, people would have been saying, 'The Orioles are trying to stock their team for the season, they're being aggressive, they're making a run at the American League East,'" he says. "But by waiting, people couldn't say that, but we were able to get some deals that we think are good deals for the team."

But because of Major League Baseball's recent changes to draft-pick compensation rules, the Orioles had to give up two selections in the amateur draft in order to sign veterans Jiménez and Cruz, both of whom rejected offers of $14.1 million dollars from their previous teams. This would seem to run counter to the stated blueprint of developing talent internally.

Two signings that didn't necessarily make huge headlines allowed the organization to roll the dice. At the end of January, the Orioles purchased the contract of Carlos Diaz, 17, a first baseman with the Mexico City Reds, and signed 16-year-old third baseman Jomar Reyes out of the Dominican Republic.

"Those are two kids we felt very strongly about, that they were like high draft picks. So after we did that, we were able to look more carefully at the compensation free agents," says Duquette. "You know, it's not something I advocate that we do every year, but we made the conscious choice to invest in our pitching staff when we traded a competitive balance pick for [Bud] Norris [in 2013] and also when we gave up the first-round pick to sign Jiménez.

"Those are two pitchers that should give us some good innings and help our major-league staff," he continues, "and given the fact we have the core players of Hardy, Jones, Wieters, Davis, Markakis, and Manny Machado in the field every day, we thought that we needed to build our pitching staff to be able to leverage the talents of those players in the field."

It's a risk, but a calculated one. By taking it, the Orioles are poised to do something special, perhaps even more special than 2012, when they shocked all of baseball with a 93-win season filled with late- and extra-innings heroics many stat-heads and analysts wrote off as a fluke.

Duquette and manager Buck Showalter know better than to speculate if this is the best Orioles team under their stewardship. They know there are too many games, too many factors, too many things that can pop up.

"All strengths and weaknesses show up in a 162-game season. There are no Cinderellas, there are no flukes," says Showalter. "And if you've got something that's not strong, it'll show up. And if you've got something that's strong, it'll show up. I'm looking forward to our curiosity being satisfied in the season. I've got a lot of confidence in these guys."

Coming into their Opening Day game, March 31 against the Red Sox, if you take the liberty Showalter and Duquette don't have of looking at the roster, penciling in the positions, and projecting out stat lines, it's hard to conclude that it isn't the best team of the Duquette-Showalter era. A team that thrived on power last year now has more of it. Almost everyone from last year's record-setting defense-a group that racked up* 119 errorless games and committed just 54 total errors, the fewest in a 162-game season-is back. More importantly, the Orioles are breaking camp with what is unquestionably the best group of starting pitchers they've had in years, and if you look to the minor leagues, there's only more arms on the way.

For players who were here for some of the lean times before the Orioles were a legit contender, like Wieters, the upcoming season offers the chance to realize the team's potential.

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"It's completely flipped around," he says. "A lot of the guys that are kind of the leaders of the team now came up and played through some of the tough times that we had in '08, '09, and '10. That kind of makes us sort of realize how much we want it-to stay competing for the playoffs and competing for the ultimate prize, and that's the World Series."

First, the power

. By signing Cruz, the team added a hitter who averaged around 26 home runs over the last three years (the last of which included a 50-game suspension as part of MLB's Biogenesis investigation) to a lineup that last year led all of baseball in homers by a margin of 24, with 212, and featured four players who surpassed 20 bombs in Davis, Wieters, Jones, and Hardy.

And they're consistent. In 2012, the O's clubbed 214 homers, second only to the Yankees. Once again, Davis, Wieters, Jones, and Hardy all hit more than 20.

"It's definitely a deep lineup," says Wieters. "Everybody in the lineup, we just kind of want to pass the baton and be able to keep it rolling to where, every night we go out there, we're gonna make it a tough outing for the other starting pitcher."

You can't guarantee they'll all hit more than 20 again, but barring injury, those four are going to hit homers in bunches. The more important thing, as Duquette sees it, might be what the guys ahead of the power bats in the lineup can do.

"I think the key will be if we have some guys on base when we hit those long balls," he says. "If we do a little better job with on-base percentage, we'll be able to leverage that power to two-, three-, and four-run homers."

That historic defense? As

Sun

beat writer Eduardo Encina posited back in December, it may be even better. The Orioles had Gold Glove finalists at every non-pitcher position except for left field and second base. Even though baseball has become incredibly wonky in recent years with its advanced statistics, there still isn't a very accurate measure for quantifying a player's value on defense. But by the metrics available, Encina noted, left fielder David Lough, acquired via a trade with the Kansas City Royals, grades out better than his predecessor, fan-favorite Nate McLouth. The same is true for second baseman Ryan Flaherty in comparison to Brian Roberts, the longtime Oriole who signed with the New York Yankees this offseason. Even if they're not starters, both Flaherty and Lough should see plenty of playing time.

And then there's the starting pitching. Jiménez should be a shot in the arm for a rotation that was 22nd in baseball last year in innings pitched by starters, with 939 innings logged. That group amassed a 4.57 earned run average (ERA), good for 27th in the majors. This was a weak spot even for the 2012 squad, which won eight more games and made the playoffs as a wild card. That year's team ranked 20th and 21st in innings pitched and ERA, respectively.

Though Jiménez went through a rough patch after emerging as a top young talent with the Colorado Rockies from 2008-2010, he was dominant last season with the Cleveland Indians, winning 13 games and boasting a 3.30 ERA-a resurgence Jiménez attributes to mechanical changes recommended by Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway.

Yoon is still a bit of an unknown. But with Jiménez slotting in behind Tillman-who emerged as a legitimate top-of-the rotation starter in 2013, going 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA-and Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen behind that, the righty will have to compete for the fifth and final spot with Bud Norris, and that's a good problem to have.

Even so, Showalter tempers his optimism when talking about the group.

"You know, we got some guys who are trying to establish a track record, and we're hoping that Jiménez can help us from that standpoint, but we're going to have to have some other people step up," he says in his signature twang. "We think it has a chance to be improved, but you know, everyone's gonna have to pull their load."

The biggest X-factor in the whole thing might rest on the left shoulder of Johan Santana, the two-time Cy Young Award winner who signed an incentive-laden one-year deal after undergoing a second operation on his shoulder. If he's able to rehab in the minor leagues and return close to his pre-surgery self-he pitched to a 4.85 ERA in 21 starts with the Mets after his first surgery-it could be a boon.

Joining Santana in the higher levels of the minors is a bumper crop of young pitchers that could make an impact this season, headlined by Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, two of the most heralded young players in the game, and featuring Mike Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez. Those four pitchers, along with second baseman Jonathan Schoop and outfielder Henry Urrutia, are, ideally, the next wave of major-leaguers, and behind them are guys like pitcher Hunter Harvey, catcher Michael Ohlman, catcher Chance Sisco, and the two teenage signees, Diaz and Reyes.

Those are the names emblematic of the player pipeline Duquette and Showalter have long stressed is the key to making Baltimore a consistent winner, especially in the AL East, where the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees can spend millions more, the Tampa Bay Rays are perpetually flush with young talent, and the Toronto Blue Jays fit somewhere in between. Not every prospect is going to hit-in fact, most don't-but if you stock the farm system with raw talent and come up with a methodology for educating those players, you'll improve your chances of developing a big leaguer.

Duquette described his end goal this way: "It would be the same model that Harry Dalton established in the '60s and '70s with good Oriole teams. A lot of good, aggressive scouting, sound pitching investments, a good training program, and an educational approach to the organization."

When Dalton put that into place, resulting in two World Series championships in four appearances, it was called the Oriole Way, and that's something the organization hasn't really had in totality for years.

There are still questions that remain for the players who figure to have the most impact in the majors here and now: How will Manny Machado's recovery from knee surgery go? Who is going to close games in the 9th inning? Can Nick Markakis have a bounceback year after putting up career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage?

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The first two remain unclear, but both Showalter and Duquette seem confident a solution will emerge for the closer role. Among the current favorites-a list that includes Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, and Ryan Webb-everybody has pitched late in games but nobody has major-league closing experience.

"I think we potentially have some people that are capable of doing it. And having all these guys [across the majors] that have done it well at some point, they didn't have a track record either," says Showalter. "The people that we're thinking about giving the chance to have followed a very similar path to get this opportunity, and now they have to take advantage of it."

As for Markakis, Showalter is quick to note this is the first season the right fielder has been able to put in his normal offseason workout after dealing with nagging injuries dating back to 2012.

"And we're seeing that down here," he says. "And I'm a guy who's learned through the years that you don't count out guys like Nick Markakis. You want to get his attention? Tell him he can't do something and he's gonna show you. Anybody who's counting him out is making a mistake."

But perhaps the biggest question, if you look a little further out, is this: Will this group only get one shot? Hardy's contract is up after this year. Looming larger, Davis and Wieters are due for extensions the year after that.

"I don't know what the future holds, but I know that we got 'em on this year's ballclub, and we have added to our ballclub so that we can be competitive," Duquette says. "Our fans understand who we are, they understand the type of leadership we have in Buck Showalter, the hard-working, lunch pail-carrying identity of the ballclub. And right now we're going to do everything we can to compete every year."

Asked if he'll be able to go past the $100 million mark, he doesn't reveal much: "We've been continuing to invest in the team and build the payroll as the fans have come back to support the team, and we're gonna continue to do that."

Even before the Orioles landed Cruz, CBS Sports columnist Jon Heyman wrote the signing of Jiménez signaled the Orioles "are a win-now team" because "[n]o one has any illusion about the Orioles being able to sign either [Wieters or Davis]. So to be blunt, they have two years to get it done."

"Well, that's one way to look at it," says Duquette. "The other way I look at it is we want to have a competitive team every year, year-in and year-out. We think we've built up our talent base to build up a competitive team."

"You know, this is the American League East, that's a very competitive league," he continues. "It's a tough neighborhood to compete in year-in and year-out with the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Rays, and the Blue Jays. You've got a couple of the top organizations in sports, and we need to be resourceful to be competitive every year with that group."

Showalter was a little less diplomatic.

"No, that's horse," he says, stopping short of adding "shit" or some other derivation.

"You know, that reads well, it makes for good fodder, and we're all-in every day, every year. It doesn't matter what somebody's contract status is. Our ownership has been very supportive of anything that we needed. Ya know, are you only in when you're competitive? If he's talking about a window of opportunity because certain guys' contracts might be up at the end of X number of years, I guess you could make a story out of that. We don't look at it that way. We're trying to grind like hell this year and see if we can win and see where it takes us.

"We wanted to make this place attractive to players again and let everybody know what a great city Baltimore is to play in, so that happened," he continues. "We'll be competitive with offers to keep our own, and it'll work out."

Wieters isn't giving a new contract much thought.

"As a player, you kinda learn that looking toward the future can always hinder the present. Right now, we all feel like we have a team-right here, right now-that can compete and win it all," he says. "The contract is something I'll worry about it when it's time to worry about it, but that's definitely not right now."

*

An earlier version of this article said the Orioles' 2013 defense "ran up a streak of 119 errorless games." The team had 119 errorless games during the 2013 season, but not in a row.

City Paper

regrets the error.

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