SARASOTA, Fla. — — As Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette sat in his office at the Ed Smith Stadium complex on a sunny afternoon earlier this month, overlooking a well-manicured cloverleaf of fields, a bitter winter seemed like an eternity ago in more ways than one.
Duquette and the Orioles went through a relatively stagnant offseason that left fans frustrated and experts predicting a fifth-place finish in the American League East. He had to defend the lack of moves as recently as the first day of February at the team's FanFest event, promising that the Orioles wouldn't go into Opening Day without improving the club.
That's all changed.
"What did I tell you all winter?" Duquette said with a smirk, leaning back in his chair and putting his hands behind his head. "That we were going to sign some guys. We signed them."
Early in the offseason, with other teams spending large amounts of money in free agency, the Orioles didn't have the means to play at the same high-limit poker table as others. While the division-rival New York Yankees spent $465 million this winter, Duquette stood against the figurative wall and waited for a cheaper card game.
That opportunity came after the Orioles arrived in Florida for spring training.
They signed 27-year-old South Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon, one of the youngest pitchers available, to a three-year, $5.575 million deal. And then they hit a sleeping fan base with a one-two punch that revitalized optimism in Baltimore, signing right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to a club-record four-year, $50 million deal and then adding outfielder Nelson Cruz on a one-year, $8 million contract.
The successive moves, coming after the Orioles had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1996 and 1997, put the club back into the discussion of contending teams in the division.
"Every day in the American League East is a challenge," Duquette said. "And whenever those clubs were adding to their teams, it reminds you that you have to build your team to compete with them. So we had a good idea of what our shopping list was, we just were unable to execute our plan until later in the signing season."
It seems like a record on repeat, but the AL East could be as competitive as ever in 2014, and the burning question is whether the Orioles have done enough to return to the playoffs.
"The Yankees went out and spent a lot of money this winter," Duquette said. "The [Boston] Red Sox had a good farm system and a lot of players returning from a championship team. [The] Tampa Bay [Rays are] always good. They're always trading and doing what they can to be competitive, and so are the [Toronto] Blue Jays. Four of the five teams made the playoffs over the past two years."
In each of the past seven seasons, the AL East has sent two teams to the postseason. And in three of the past four years, a team with at least 89 wins has placed third and missed the playoffs.
"It's really thick," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said of this year's division race. "It really is a coin flip on how this thing is going to shake out."
Because of the second-year qualifying offer process, a boisterous free-agent market remained in February. And because of Duquette's willingness to part with draft picks needed to sign top free agents like Jimenez and Cruz, he was able to acquire both on deals that were viewed as below-market value.
The Orioles forfeited their first-round pick to sign Jimenez and gave up their second-round selection to place the power-hitting Cruz in the middle of an already dangerous lineup.
"We don't set the market," Duquette said. "We participate in the market. We knew what was on our shopping list. We knew what players we liked. We were able to get a deal with Jimenez. And once we got a deal with Jimenez, that opened up the opportunity to sign Cruz. If we didn't sign Jimenez, we weren't prepared to give up a No. 1 pick for Cruz.
"I didn't know what the market was going to be, but I knew the players we liked, and I knew what our available resources were. We tried early on in the process. Those opportunities weren't available to us early in the process, but they were in February."
Hope, but questions remain
Although the Orioles traded closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in December, and a move to sign right-hander Grant Balfour fell through because of problems with his physical, players remained confident as the club prepared to start the season with much of the same roster that contended for a playoff spot until the final 10 days in 2013.
And the free-agent additions increased the club's positive outlook heading into this season.
"We felt like we were right in it last year for most of the year, until the very end, and we've improved our team, especially being able to add a quality starter and a big bat," catcher Matt Wieters said, referring to Jimenez and Cruz. "You feel like that's a huge improvement going into the year. At the same time, everybody else is still going to step forward and continue to get better. When you feel like you're in it all the way to the end and you can improve over the course of an offseason, it gives you a good feeling going into the year."
ESPN senior baseball writer Buster Olney said the signings gave the Orioles new life.
"The late rush of moves by the Orioles was important, not only for the team and the fan base, but I think for the players, as well," said Olney, who predicted the Orioles would win 89 games and finish tied for third in the division with the Yankees. "I think some doubt had begun to creep in among them. But adding Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz added to the confidence in the clubhouse. … Like last year, this division is wide open, and they are so tightly packed together, that a couple of injuries and an adept change can swing a team from fourth to first."
While the moves helped the Orioles to join the list of contenders in the AL, one national baseball expert still believes the club needs more to happen in order to compete this season.
"I love what they did, just the aggression of it," Fox Sports senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal said. "Jimenez is a definite risk, but [new pitching coach Dave] Wallace is the right kind of pitching coach for him. The question is, are Jimenez and Cruz enough? Their starting pitching still looks short. It would help if [pitching prospect Kevin] Gausman became a force."
Will the Orioles' rare long-term commitment to Jimenez pay off? How do they replace Johnson while using a cast of relievers with limited experience as a closer? And maybe more importantly, how long will they be without 21-year-old All-Star third baseman Manny Machado, who will open the season on the 15-day disabled list as he continues to recover from left knee surgery?
"The Orioles made two shrewd moves, putting them in position once again to contend for both a divisional title and wild-card berth," former Washington Nationals general manager and current ESPN senior baseball analyst Jim Bowden said. "They still have a major question in the ninth inning that has to be answered … if they are actually going to make it to the postseason. I'm not picking them to make the playoffs, but also wouldn't be surprised if they finished anywhere from first to fourth in baseball's most difficult division."
Careful, patient spending
The Orioles' core group of position players — Machado, Wieters, center fielder Adam Jones, first baseman Chris Davis, shortstop J.J. Hardy and right fielder Nick Markakis — remains one of the best in baseball. The addition of Cruz makes them one of the most dangerous lineups, and last season, they set a new standard for defense with several major league records.
The club's starting rotation is its most stable in years — from Opening Day starter Chris Tillman to Jimenez and down to left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, and right-handers Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris.
The team added outfielder David Lough, who has shown scrappiness, run-scoring capability and a solid glove, in a trade with the Kansas City Royals. And last week, Duquette flipped nonroster infielder Alex Gonzalez to the Detroit Tigers for utility player Steve Lombardozzi.
"We've seen it with plenty of teams that, going into the season, you think, 'Oh, they've done the most of any team, they're going to be really good,' " said Hardy, who won an AL Gold Glove and AL Silver Slugger last year. "And then it turns out that the team doesn't mesh, and it's not as good as you think.
"It's the same thing with all these other teams. They're making big moves, but you don't know how they're going to play together. We know how we're going to play together because we have pretty much the same group with a few additions. It can go either way. I don't know if there was concern. I think we had settled in, being confident in the guys we had. We're obviously open to any moves that they make that are going to make our team better, and that's what they did."
So even though the Orioles' projected payroll sits at a club-record $107.4 million, the team didn't have to spend frivolously to become contenders.
"It took some patience for the market to really become defined for Baltimore, but I would have liked to have signed those players in December," Duquette said. "But it would have cost us a lot more money. By waiting, we were able to sign some good players and get some contracts that are good for the team and good for the fans."
The result might be the best club the Orioles have fielded since they went to the AL Championship Series in 1997.
Whether that's enough to get back to the postseason remains to be seen. But the consensus is that they will be competitive until the end.
"The most competitive men are drawn to the most competitive challenges and to their credit, Nelson Cruz and Jimenez, they know how to compete," Duquette said. "They chose Baltimore. But they also want to be a part of a competitive team, and our intent is to be competitive year in and year out."
Key moves in the AL East
OF Nelson Cruz: Averaged 27 homers the past five seasons with the Texas Rangers
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez: Has recorded 31 or more starts in each of the past six seasons
OF David Lough: A career .278 hitter with high upside and defensive skills
RHP Ryan Webb: Pitched to a 2.91 ERA in a career-high 801/3 IP in 2013
2B Jemile Weeks: Batted .303 as a rookie in 2011, but has struggled with consistency
RHP Suk-min Yoon: Finished 3-6 with a 4.00 ERA, seven saves in South Korea last year
RHP Scott Feldman: Had 12-12 record with 3.86 ERA between Orioles, Cubs last year
RHP Jason Hammel: Finished 7-8 with a 4.97 ERA in 26 games (23 starts) in 2013
RHP Jim Johnson: Became first AL reliever to record back-to-back 50-save seasons
OF Nate McLouth: Top-of-the-order spark plug had 31 2Bs, career-high 30 SBs last season
2B Brian Roberts: Hit .249 with 12 2Bs, 8 HRs, 39 RBIs in 77 games last year
DH Danny Valencia: A career .329 hitter against left-handed pitching
Boston Red Sox
RHP Burke Badenhop: Held right-handed hitters to .229 average in 63 games last year
C A.J. Pierzynski: Veteran has started more than 100 games behind the plate in each of the past 13 seasons
RHP Edward Mujica: Recorded career-high 37 saves last season, but adds bullpen depth this year
SS Stephen Drew: Matched career high with 67 RBIs in only season in Boston
OF Jacoby Ellsbury: A career .292 hitter out of the leadoff spot, he led the majors with 52 SBs last year
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Set career highs in batting average (.273), RBIs (65), doubles (40) and runs (68) in 2013
LHP Matt Thornton: Had a 3.74 ERA in 60 appearances last season, but was left off all of Boston's postseason rosters
New York Yankees
OF Carlos Beltran: 36-year-old veteran batted .296 with 24 HRs, 84 RBIs in 2013; 16 career postseason HRs
OF Jacoby Ellsbury: 2nd for AL MVP after hitting 32 HRs in 2011, but hasn't reached double-digit HRs in another season
C Brian McCann: Has hit at least 20 HRs in seven of past eight seasons, including six straight
UTIL Kelly Johnson: Played four different positions (2B, 3B, 1B, LF) and also served as DH for Tampa Bay Rays in 2013
2B Brian Roberts: Played in 77 games, including 60 at second base, for the Orioles last year, his most since 2009
RHP Masahiro Tanaka: 25-year-old went 99-35, 2.30 ERA in seven seasons in Japanese Pacific League
LHP Matt Thornton: Left-handed hitters have batted .233 against him in his career, while righties are slightly better (.241)
2B Robinson Cano: Averaged 44 2Bs, 28 HRs, 102 RBIs in past five seasons in New York
OF Curtis Granderson: Played in just 61 games in 2013, but he averaged 42 HRs in two previous seasons
LHP Boone Logan: Had a 3.38 ERA in four seasons with Yankees; left-handed hitters batted .221 vs. him last year
RHP Andy Pettitte: Announced retirement again, ending 18-year career with 11-11 record, 3.74 ERA at age 41 in 2013
RHP Mariano Rivera: All-time saves leader (652) finished career with 44 last year while compiling 2.11 ERA in 64 games
3B Alex Rodriguez: After batting .244 in 44 games last season, 38-year-old will serve season-long suspension in 2014
Tampa Bay Rays
RHP Grant Balfour: 36-year-old has struggled in spring training, but had career-high 38 saves in 2013
RHP Heath Bell: Had three straight 40-save seasons from 2009 to 2001, but he has a 4.59 ERA over past two seasons
C Ryan Hanigan: Defensive-minded catcher has thrown out 107 of 158 base runners (40 percent) in career
UTIL Kelly Johnson: Has hit at least 16 HRs in four straight seasons, but batted only .235 in 118 games last year
RHP Fernando Rodney: Saved 85 games in past two seasons, but he also had eight blown attempts in 2013
OF Luke Scott: Hit just .241 with 9 HRs, 40 RBIs in 91 games last year before signing in Korea this offseason
Baltimore Orioles Insider
Toronto Blue Jays
C Dioner Navarro: 10-year veteran had best offensive season in 2013, hitting .300 with 13 HRs, 34 RBIs in 89 games
C J.P. Arencibia: After hitting 12 HRs before June 1, 28-year-old only batted .145 after the All-Star break
OF Rajai Davis: Has more than 40 stolen bases in each of the past five seasons, including 45 in 2013
RHP Josh Johnson: Struggled with injuries last season, going 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA in 16 starts