Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette addressed fans at FanFest about him looking to take a job with the Toronto Blue Jays. (Kevin Richardson)
Judging by the long lines outside Baltimore Convention Center on a freezing Saturday morning and the near-record attendance estimate at the end of Orioles FanFest, reports that this has been a winter of widespread discontent may have been greatly exaggerated.
The spirited ovations received by Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, vice president Brady Anderson and manager Buck Showalter seem to indicate that the team's most loyal fans haven't spent the last three months fretting about the inactivity and uncertainty that has cast a giant shadow over this offseason.
The front office has earned that level of trust and confidence during the organization's recent renaissance, and it was important for Duquette — in particular — to feel the loyalty of the fans after spending December and most of January hearing his loyalty to the Orioles questioned because of his interest in another job.
Now that his employment status appears to be settled — at least through the 2015 season — everyone can look ahead to the start of spring training later this month without significant distraction and hope all that trust and confidence will be validated again.
Of course, club officials have contended all along that the front office has been operating normally throughout the offseason. But the relative quiet after the departure of longtime fan favorite Nick Markakis and high-profile free agents Nelson Cruz and Andrew Miller has made it difficult to view this winter simply as an extension of Duquette's deliberate management style.
Since joining the team in November 2011, Duquette has made most of his dynamic acquisitions in February and March, but never has he needed to fill the kind of void that was created by the loss of the team's top run-producer, one of the game's best relief pitchers and a Gold Glove right fielder.
For the moment, the fans seem willing to accept the company line that those losses will be offset by a bounce-back season from Chris Davis and the healthy return of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters and Platinum Glove third baseman Manny Machado.
Certainly, if all three players are ready to go on Opening Day and perform to their capabilities, the Orioles should be in a position to field a very competitive team.
They still have a deep pitching staff and almost all of the terrific defense that has played such a big role over the course of three straight winning seasons. The Orioles will miss Markakis in right field, but the recent acquisition of Travis Snider from the Pittsburgh Pirates should give Showalter enough options at the corner outfield positions.
The flaw in all this happy rationalization is that the Orioles need just about everything possible to fall into place to stay ahead of an American League East division in which the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays made major roster upgrades this winter.
The Orioles not only need Wieters, Machado and Davis to step back up, but they'll also need Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris to pick up where they left off after career years in 2014. They're also hoping that top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman takes a major step forward, second-year second baseman Jonathan Schoop gets some things figured out at the plate and somebody emerges as an effective leadoff hitter.
Really, there are only a handful of key players with a truly predictable range of performance. You know what you're going to get from center fielder Adam Jones and shortstop J.J. Hardy. Right-hander Chris Tillman has established a track record at the front of the starting rotation. Closer Zach Britton and the veteran setup guys in the bullpen seem entrenched.
There's folly in banking on so much going right after a season when the Orioles overcame so many things that went wrong, but there are a lot of variables in this equation. The Orioles also have Dylan Bundy back from Tommy John surgery, though he needs significant minor league innings to get ready for prime-time, and the coaching staff will be taking a close look at promising Cuban outfielder Dariel Alvarez this spring.
Duquette probably has enough depth to make a deal for a quality on-base threat, but Showalter seemed to hint Saturday that the players who will compete for regular at-bats are already in the organization.
What you see right now is probably what you're going to get, since there aren't the same kind of free-agent options out there that allowed Duquette to steal Cruz last spring. Duquette said last week that there might be another reliever on the way, but he seems confident that the Orioles have enough talent to make another strong run in the AL East.
The fans who crowded into Baltimore Convention Center on Saturday seemed to be OK with that.
Their trust and confidence has been rewarded in each of the three seasons that Duquette and Showalter have worked together to build the Orioles roster, so they can be forgiven for wondering why this year should be any different.