The headlines tell the whole story.
The big Orioles news this weekend is that the team signed four more minor league players — three of them at least 29 years old. The other news involved the revelation that 2017 12th-round draft choice Tucker Baca has been suspended for 60 days for a performance-enhancing drug violation.
So, tell me, is this any way to spend the last week before Orioles FanFest?
Next Saturday, thousands of Orioles fans will crowd into the Baltimore Convention Center to celebrate the unofficial start of the 2018 season and, at the moment, all they really have to talk about is the unpleasant end of 2017.
The free-agent market has been open for business for more than two months and executive vice president Dan Duquette is standing outside like a kid with his nose pressed up against the window at Toys “R” Us.
Now, nobody is saying that FanFest is some sort of deadline for upgrading the team that finished at the bottom of the American League East last season. But it is a mile marker on the road to the club’s spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla., where the first pitcher/catcher workout will take place in just three weeks.
FanFest also has long been considered the perfect time to put a charge into advance ticket sales, and it’s no coincidence that the Orioles will put single-game tickets for the 2018 season on sale Thursday.
If Duquette were the second coming of P.T. Barnum, he’d be sure to drop some big Orioles news on us over the next few days, and maybe he will. He just hasn’t done anything yet that would make you want to set aside a bunch of your warm summer nights this far in advance.
The Orioles have to know that attendance has dropped in each of the past three years and now is threatening to fall below two million for the first time since Duquette arrived on the scene.
They can cite all sorts of reasons for that, from the Freddie Gray unrest to the presence of a giant high-def television in just about every home within reach of the MASN cable signal. But there’s only one thing the Orioles have the power to exercise control over, and that is the quality of the product they put on the field.
There is only one way to change the prevailing narrative that the team is headed toward a competitive abyss — a time not so far ahead when there could be no Manny Machado or Adam Jones or Zach Britton or Jonathan Schoop.
The Orioles have to demonstrate in some tangible way that they haven’t given up on competing for a playoff berth this year, even if that must seem like an impossible dream with the New York Yankees ascending and the cost of quality free-agent starting pitching almost prohibitive.
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Orioles fans aren’t greedy. They know they’re not going to wake up next Saturday to the revelation that the Orioles swept in and signed big-money starter Yu Darvish, even though the smaller-market Minnesota Twins seem to be in the running.
The Twins and the Orioles are in similar situations. The Twins are a year away from possibly losing Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier to free agency and they badly need to flesh out their starting rotation. The big difference is that the Twins are coming off a playoff year and an impact pitcher might put them in better position to challenge the Cleveland Indians for the AL Central title.
The Orioles probably aren’t that close, especially after the Yankees blew past them last season and then acquired superstar Giancarlo Stanton to pair with young slugger Aaron Judge. Oh, and they also might sign Darvish.
It bears repeating that Duquette has waited out the free-agent market before and come away with an impact player at a bargain-basement price (Nelson Cruz). He obviously is hoping the market remains frozen while multiple teams bid on Darvish and Jake Arrieta, allowing him to pick off a pitcher in the second tier if he can’t pull off a trade for a starter.
If not, the projected starting rotation starts and ends with Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. The other three spots are wide open, though one of those jobs probably is Miguel Castro’s to lose. The other candidates are all recyclables, with Mike Wright getting one more chance because he’s out of options and Gabriel Ynoa showing a bit of promise in four September starts. Chris Tillman is a free agent, but also is not out of the question.
Unless the front office has given up hope, the Orioles need at least one legitimate No. 3 starter if they hope to avoid another rotation meltdown like the one they experienced in 2017.
That’s the storyline heading into FanFest. It would nice if the Orioles could do something before then to change the subject.