The new baseball season will open on Monday without Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy in the Orioles starting lineup and no definite timetable for either to return, which is certainly not what the doctor ordered for a team that didn't exactly light up the offseason.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette was adamant at the start of spring training that the lack of any dynamic free agent acquisitions — in the wake of several dynamic departures — would not inhibit his club's ability to defend its 2014 American League East title because of the projected healthy return of three All-Star players.
"The most powerful thing we've done for our team in the offseason is to get [Matt] Wieters and [Manny] Machado and [Chris] Davis back on it and get them healthy and playing ball," Duquette said on the day before the Orioles' first spring workout. "And that's significant because you're talking about three everyday ballplayers who are good defenders."
It was hard to argue with him at the time. Wieters seemed to be on schedule to play in early April and Machado quickly showed that he was ready for anything. Davis, who also will miss Opening Day serving the final game of his Adderall suspension, also appeared to be his old self.
What Duquette was essentially saying was that if somebody offered to trade you a healthy Wieters, Machado and Davis for free agent departees Nelson Cruz, Andrew Miller and Nick Markakis, you would make that deal in a heartbeat. And he was right.
The Orioles won the division by 12 games last year in spite of the injuries that impacted a big chunk of their starting lineup, so it was fair to assume that they could replace Cruz's major-league-leading home run total and Markakis's offensive production if all else went well. It just wasn't fair to assume that all else would go well.
Spring training seemed to be humming along very nicely until a couple of weeks ago, but now it's hard not to fret about the uncertain injury situation.
Duquette didn't stand completely pat over the winter. He eventually traded for outfielder Travis Snider and signed free agent infielder Everth Cabrera to a one-year deal that may have turned into the key move of the offseason when Hardy jammed his left shoulder last Friday.
Cabrera appeared to be on his way to Triple-A Norfolk and likely will share time with Ryan Flaherty at shortstop until Hardy returns, but he is a former All-Star with a valuable set of tools who can move into the position full-time if necessary.
He was considered a gamble when he was signed because of a checkered past, but now represents the recognition by Duquette that there was more to replacing Cruz and Markakis than offsetting their offensive potential. The Orioles' optimum starting lineup figured to be good enough to compete with anyone … if they could avoid the kind of in-season losses that made Cruz the free agent bargain of the new century.
It is that margin for error that this year's team lacks, especially now that the Orioles apparently will have to use their infield wild card so soon. They're fortunate to have Cabrera, but what happens if Machado comes up sore or Jonathan Schoop can't produce enough at the plate to hold down second base?
Though the Orioles have all sorts of options in the outfield, they don't feature the kind of offensive potential at either corner position to overcome the loss of another big bat.
In other words, they really can't take another depth charge and expect to be a strong offensive club.
Of course, manager Buck Showalter is a master at bringing quick-fix players out of the shadows and getting more from them than anyone could reasonably expect. The Orioles managed to get by without Wieters for five months and still run away with the division title last year, so who's to say they won't hold the lineup together with Steve Pearce and baling wire again.
They still have terrific pitching depth, with more starters than spots in the rotation and a lot of quality spare parts in the bullpen. And they still have Duquette, who has been known to turn over the right rock when you least expect it.