It's late November, most of the leaves have turned and it's starting to look like the Orioles are going to be outflanked again by the big-money teams of the American League East.
That has become a rite of autumn. The Boston Red Sox just opened their vault and poured money all over free-agent stars Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. The Toronto Blue Jays recently spent a mint on catcher Russell Martin. The New York Yankees want everyone to believe they're taking a free-agent breather this year, but no one believes them.
Meanwhile, Orioles baseball operations guru Dan Duquette is doing what he usually does at this time of year — dabbling on the fringes of the free-agent market and waiting to see where the bargains will be in January and February.
For every All-Star signed by one of the Orioles' division competitors, Duquette comes up with a head-scratcher like career minor leaguer Rey Navarro, who is expected to be added to the club's 40-man roster this week. For every preemptive contract extension that makes headlines elsewhere, there is a lingering negotiation like the one that has outfielder Nick Markakis in free-agent limbo.
These are the times that try an Orioles fan's soul, but there should be some comfort in the fact that Duquette has been employing this tortoise-and-hare approach throughout his career as a baseball executive, and the results speak for themselves.
Duquette built a pretty good team in Boston, even if he didn't get to stick around to celebrate the historic 2004 World Series championship, and he took the baton from Andy MacPhail and completed an Orioles rebuilding program that has resulted in playoff appearances in two of the past three seasons.
Duquette has an infuriating habit of doing things his own way and proving everybody wrong, so this is just another one of those times when we'll have to let things play out and see where the Orioles are in February.
Last winter, he waited until after spring training was underway before reeling off a series of free-agent acquisitions. They didn't all work out well, of course, but he hit the jackpot with the bargain-basement deal that put Nelson Cruz in the middle of the lineup. And it turned out to be the move that propelled the Orioles to the AL Championship Series for the first time since 1997.
This fall, Duquette surprised everyone by signing Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy to a rich contract extension in the middle of the playoffs, but if that was a signal that he was going to be more proactive this offseason, there has been no sign of that since.
The effort to sign Markakis to a multiyear extension appeared to be humming along until the talks suddenly cooled. Though the deal still figures to get done, his contract situation is no longer a slam dunk, and there is room to wonder if he might end up going the way of Mike Mussina, who shocked local fans when he abruptly pulled out of negotiations with the Orioles to sign with the rival Yankees in 2000.
To be fair, there are two sides in every free-agent negotiation.
The Orioles also would like to keep Cruz, who had to sell himself very cheaply last February after serving a 50-game suspension in 2013 for his involvement in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drugs scandal. He re-established his value with an MVP-caliber season in Baltimore and, quite understandably, is busy trying to maximize his value in this year's market, so Duquette has little choice but to wait and see how things play out.
The competition for left-handed reliever Andrew Miller has been so intense that the Orioles have already conceded that they are not in play to re-sign him after his impressive late-season and postseason performance.
No one will be happy to see him go elsewhere, but the Orioles have too many needs to fill and too many players in line for arbitration-fueled salary increases to pay him up to $10 million per year to pitch an inning at a time. If they didn't already have a highly effective closer still making a very modest salary, it might be a different story.
There are also trade possibilities to consider, and baseball's winter meetings are just ahead. The Orioles need to add a solid on-base guy — or two, if Markakis doesn't come back — and appear to have enough pitching depth to deal a starter for somebody who will help glue together their all-or-nothing offensive attack.