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Schmuck: Dan Duquette indicates Orioles might not have big changes in store for 2017

The most definitive thing that came out of the Orioles' end-of-the-season news conference  Thursday probably wasn't what the club's fan base wanted to hear after the team's one-and-done postseason.

Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette, who was joined by manager Buck Showalter for the nearly hour-long Q&A session with reporters, made it clear that last winter's record offseason shopping spree was not a sign of things to come.

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The Orioles became one of baseball's biggest spenders by bringing back free-agent first baseman Chris Davis, reliever Darren O'Day and catcher Matt Wieters for a total of more than $200 million. They also signed free agents Yovani Gallardo and Pedro Alvarez during spring training, sending the team into the 2016 season with a franchise-record payroll.

So, when asked Thursday whether there was any payroll flexibility left for this offseason, Duquette seemed to concede that there wouldn't be enough money to bring in any marquee players from outside the organization.

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"Going into last year's offseason, the Orioles had probably the least amount of money committed on a long-term basis of any of the clubs,'' Duquette said. "We invested in our team for the long term with some of the contracts that we signed, notably Chris Davis, Darren O'Day also and we signed Gallardo. We had, what, 14 free agents last year? We don't have nearly as many this year.

"We've got a little bit better base. I think a lot of the payroll flexibility will be absorbed by these good players that had really good years. Zach Britton had a historically good year – the top ERA among major league relievers. [Manny] Machado, he had over 30 home runs, almost 100 RBIs. These guys are going to be getting big raises."

That's true, of course. Every team that has decent talent and intends to keep it has an automatically ascending payroll, and the ever-inflating salary arbitration system is a stairway to financial heaven for the top young players in the sport.

Duquette focused Thursday on the accomplishments of those players and the five-year record of success that he and Showalter have presided over since they were brought together before the uplifting 2012 season. He defended the club's heavy emphasis on power bats and downplayed the need to bring in another quality on-base guy to help connect the dots in the club's on-again, off-again offensive lineup.

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"I think our fundamental team is a little stronger this year going into the offseason,'' he said. "I don't really see the need to recommend a lot of long-term investments."

The case can be made that a full season with Hyun Soo Kim playing regularly and a healthy return by Rule 5 surprise Joey Rickard will provide more connective tissue to a lineup that was almost all muscle by the end of the season. But Duquette's stay-the-course message will ring hollow with some fans.

The Orioles do have the best record in the American League over the past five seasons. They obviously are in an extended renaissance after a 14-year competitive drought that didn't include a single .500 season. But it might be a mistake to fall back on that after a season when attendance fell hard even though the Orioles were in first place for a major chunk of the schedule.

It was an exciting season, but the overemphasis on power caught up with the Orioles at the end. They scored three runs or fewer in 12 of their final 16 games, including the frustrating 11-inning wild-card game that featured just one big swing and no hits after the sixth inning.

Duquette conceded that the team needs to get more runners on base to better leverage the lineup's terrific power potential, but he bristled at the characterization of it as an all-or-nothing offensive attack.

"I don't think the guys we bring in are all or nothing,'' he said. "We like to have power throughout our lineup. That's been a consistent theme. We like to have good defense at every position. Ideally, we'd like to have power at every position. We can do a better job in on-base capability, absolutely, but the power plays pretty well in our ballpark. It helps us. We had 50 wins at home this year. I think our fans enjoy seeing that. When you get into a close game, yes, you have to execute offensively, but the power plays. They don't have any fielders on the other side of the fence."

Trouble is, it doesn't play nearly as well in the postseason, as the Orioles have proved more than just on Tuesday night.

If the Orioles are content to just be competitive and entertaining, they are on the right track. If they want to have a real chance to win the World Series during the two seasons they are certain to still have most of their top stars, they should not let this winter go to waste.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and follow him @SchmuckStop on Twitter.

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