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Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer, who will be a free agent this offseason, would instantly make the Orioles a much more formidable team in the postseason.
Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer, who will be a free agent this offseason, would instantly make the Orioles a much more formidable team in the postseason. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

The Orioles didn't fall short of the World Series by much this year, and the obvious case can be made that the return of some key players will make them a stronger team in 2015.

But this is no time to take the pedal off the metal.

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When the free-agent market opens to unrestricted bidding next week, the organization needs to decide just how much it wants to be the last major league team standing, because next year may provide their best opportunity for the foreseeable future.

Manager Buck Showalter likes to talk about getting to the playoffs and "rolling the dice," which is what the Orioles did in 2012 and again this year. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has repeatedly referred to the postseason as a "crapshoot," and the presence of two wild-card teams in this year's Fall Classic certainly confirms the influence of luck and late-season momentum in baseball's four-tiered playoff system.

So, it would be no great surprise if Duquette and ownership project the return of absent stars Matt Wieters, Manny Machado and Chris Davis and conclude that the Orioles don't need to make any drastic upgrades to make another run at the big trophy next season.

That might be a mistake.

The Orioles do appear to have the talent to remain at or near the top of the American League East standings for one more year — especially if they can convince pending free agent Nelson Cruz to stick around — but with Wieters and Davis a season away from free agency and several other key players climbing the salary arbitration ladder, there should be an even greater sense of urgency to build a world champion this winter.

If there was ever a time to throw caution to the wind and make a major play for a difference-making pitching ace, this is it. Two terrific starters will be available — left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Max Scherzer — either one of whom would dramatically improve an already deep rotation and instantly make the Orioles a much more formidable team in the postseason.

Sure, this is something of a pipe dream. The Orioles already are looking at a steep uptick in payroll because of their arbitration liabilities and ownership is probably reluctant to invest in more pitching after throwing $50 million at an unproductive Ubaldo Jimenez last spring.

But there's a fundamental question that needs to be answered as the front office gets to work on next season's roster: Does owner Peter Angelos want to win the World Series next year or just get close enough to sniff it?

The organization has every right to stay the course. It is putting an entertaining and successful product on the field and the fans have responded. They trust Showalter and Duquette to keep the club moving in the right direction after three straight winning seasons and two playoff runs. The problem is that pesky horizon, over which there may be a lot more uncertainty.

No doubt, everyone would be just fine with rolling the dice next October, but there's also something to be said for controlling as many of the variables as possible.

The front office can start by taking advantage of the five-day exclusive bidding period that begins this week to make its best offer to Cruz, which would help determine — one way or the other — how much payroll Duquette will have to work with this winter. The club also could do the same with reliever Andrew Miller, but he seems likely to get paid like a closer from one of the other teams that fell short during this postseason.

Obviously, there will be tremendous competition for the top free agents. There always is. The Orioles had to go outside of their comfort zone just to sign Jimenez. Fans can only hope that unfruitful (so far) decision doesn't have the same long-term effect on free-agent spending that the ill-fated signing of Albert Belle did a decade or so ago.

There are other needs that might be addressed through free agency, most notably the addition of a solid on-base guy to help bond the power-packed lineup together.

If there was a lesson to be learned from the AL Championship Series, it was that the Orioles do not make enough good contact to deliver consistent run-production against the quality pitching staffs that populate the postseason. Even in the Division Series sweep of the Detroit Tigers, more than half of their total run-production (12 of 21 runs) came in two big innings.

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In a perfect offseason, Duquette would re-sign Nick Markakis and acquire a solid OBP guy to bat in the leadoff spot, which would allow Markakis to move down in the order and provide some continuity elsewhere in the lineup.

The free-agent market doesn't present a ton of good options. The player that best fits that description might be speedy Kansas City Royals outfielder Nori Aoki, a .287 career hitter who can steal bases and play left field, but he will have several serious suitors this winter.

The Orioles might also attempt to address the on-base issue with a trade, since they figure to have a starting pitcher to deal with Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy likely to compete for places in the rotation next spring.

If the past is any indication, Duquette will take his time figuring all this out. He is not generally inclined toward giant contracts, but the Orioles might want to keep an open mind — and an open wallet — if they truly want to win the World Series any time soon.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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