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The big holes the O's need to fill just got bigger

With the loss of Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, the Baltimore Orioles need to find two corner outfielders

The departure of Nick Markakis obviously is another blow to the Orioles' fan base and a reminder that those who ignore history really are doomed to repeat it.

The Orioles have been down this road before, and the way the Markakis contract negotiations unraveled and left him open to signing a four-year deal with the Atlanta Braves have to bring back some painful memories of another long-time Orioles favorite who left under somewhat similar circumstances 14 years ago come Sunday.

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Pitching ace Mike Mussina headed into free agency after the 2000 season and was signed by the New York Yankees. The unhappy parting was facilitated by Yankees manager Joe Torre, who reached out to Mussina to persuade him that he would enjoy playing in the Big Apple, and the sorry subtext was that the Orioles didn't show him enough love to prevent him from leaving.

That's why a lot of long-time fans probably felt a chill when news leaked out this week that Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was in Monkton Monday along with other members of the Braves front office having dinner with Markakis. Torre didn't go quite that far, but the effect apparently was the same.

Markakis, the guy who was never, ever going to leave Baltimore — and who was reported to be very close to signing a four-year deal with the Orioles early in the offseason — got those four years and a $44 million guarantee from the team in his home state. The Orioles, meanwhile, lost a key player from the team that completed the franchise's most successful season since 1997 just two days after team MVP Nelson Cruz signed a four-year deal with the Seattle Mariners.

To some, that might seem like a lot of money for a guy who batted .276 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs in 2014, but Markakis is not a guy you can judge on his raw offensive numbers. He just won his second Gold Glove in right field and he sacrificed the chance to put up more impressive run-production stats to fill the leadoff spot for O's manager Buck Showalter last year and for parts of the previous two seasons.

No doubt, Showalter also did what he could to persuade Markakis — the longest-tenured Oriole — to stay, but baseball operations chief Dan Duquette does things at his own pace and he isn't a guy who puts a lot of stock in sentiment. Though the early speculation had the Orioles willing to give Markakis four guaranteed years, the club cooled on the idea and might have slow-played the negotiations in the hopes of getting him to sign for three.

There's probably a sabermetric argument to be made for letting go of a Gold Glove right fielder whose offensive numbers have declined since injuries hampered him during the 2012 season, but there's a legitimate emotional argument to be made for going the extra mile to re-sign a player who has done everything the Orioles have asked of him — on the field, in the clubouse and in the community — over the course of his nine-year major league career.

There's also a case to be made that the Orioles no longer can say they will be okay because Matt Wieters, Manny Machado and Chris Davis will be back next season. The loss of Cruz could be rationalized like that, but now the Orioles have only one cornerstone outfielder and clearly need offensive help to stay at or near the top of the improving American League East.

Duquette, who was named Major League Baseball Executive of the Year by both The Sporting News and Baseball America after the Orioles reached the American League Championship Series, said soon after the playoffs that the Orioles would have sufficient resources to field a competitive team in 2015.

He should have more money to spend with Markakis and Cruz off the books, but the Orioles also have tendered contracts to all 11 of their arbitration-eligible players and figure to see their payroll grow substantially no matter what they do in the free agent or trade markets.

There have been rumors of interest in a number of veteran free agents and the Winter Meetings are just around the corner, but it seems likely that Duquette will continue to work at his own speed and keep Orioles fans in suspense until he's good and ready to fill the big holes that have just opened up in his team's lineup.

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

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