If you live by the home run, you die by the home run. The Orioles hit the second most in baseball in 2012. They hit three -- all solo shots -- while scoring just 15 runs in six postseason games. Those three homers were hit by unlikely sources: Leadoff man Nate McLouth, rookie Manny Machado and Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty. The main brutes in their lineup couldn't get it going and, by Game 5 of the ALDS, were swinging from their heels, trying to hit a bases-empty grand slam on each pitch. It's pretty obvious this club needs more selectivity at the plate and better production with runners in scoring position. A high on-base percentage is a hallmark of a Dan Duquette club, and the 2012 team was among the worst in the AL. So that likely will be a focus in the offseason. But the Orioles aren't the only ones that covet OBP, and there aren't many free agents who could bring a big boost in that category. The best, of course, is troubled slugger Josh Hamilton, who will be the biggest free agent fish. He has a lifetime OBP of .363, would be the perfect cleanup hitter for the Orioles and could man left field. But he¿ll be exceptionally expensive and comes with plenty of risk -- including an eye-focusing condition that led to a disastrous end of 2012. It's more likely that Duquette will have to work his magic with "undervalued assets" to better the club's on-base and scoring possibilities.
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This is probably the most intriguing thing to watch this winter. The Orioles have been relegated to third-tier status when it comes to free agency in the past decade. Simply put, the most coveted free agents had no interest in joining Baltimore's losing atmosphere and the mid-level targets seemingly used the Orioles' interest as negotiating leverage when dealing with other teams. The common wisdom was that free agents wouldn't come here unless they had no other alternatives. But now the Orioles are coming off a playoff season, retain an impressive nucleus and play in Camden Yards, still one of the best venues in sports. So free agents may kick the Orioles' tires more sincerely this year. And there's some belief that the Orioles need to strike in free agency while their iron is still hot. But will the Orioles open up their doors -- and checkbook -- for the first- or second-tier guys? Duquette didn't answer the question head on after the season, but his tap-dancing answer made it seem like he is more apt to continue down his road, and not look for a quick, costly fix. "I've said all along the way to build a good ballclub is from the ground up. It's not from the top down," he said. "We are always looking for opportunity, but I'm going to tell you this: The core players are going to come from our minor league system." The Orioles, under owner Peter Angelos, have never signed a free-agent pitcher beyond three years. Duquette, who is big into risk-reward analysis, for the most part agrees with that philosophy. The guess is that they add a couple free agent pieces, but may leave the marquee guys alone.
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The Orioles' participation in the 2012 playoffs wasn't just surprising; it was illuminating. It demonstrated how far the club had come this year and also what it needs to do to get back to the postseason -- and last longer -- in 2013. No one -- at least no one whose paycheck doesn't have a bird on it -- could have predicted that these Orioles would win 93 regular season games and three more in the postseason. But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. And losing to the New York Yankees in five games in the American League Division Series highlighted the club's deficiencies as well as its strengths. The Orioles need to become less one-dimensional offensively. And, like most teams, they lack an ace that will grab the ball in clutch situations and pitch deep into games, sparing the bullpen while frustrating the opposition. So with that in mind, here are the club's five biggest questions heading into the offseason and our best attempt to answer them: -- Dan Connolly