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Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz hits a two-run home run against the Detroit Tigers in Game 3 of the ALDS.
Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz hits a two-run home run against the Detroit Tigers in Game 3 of the ALDS. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today Sports)

Nearly every locker inside the Orioles clubhouse had been vacated by Friday afternoon, equipment bags packed, moving boxes stacked and even nameplates removed.

On a day when Camden Yards could have hosted Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, catcher Matt Wieters was one of the final Orioles to leave, walking out of Oriole Park one last time holding his bat bag in one hand and his son, Maverick, in the other.

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The abrupt end to the Orioles' most successful season in 17 years — which ended Wednesday in Kansas City with the Royals celebrating a four-game ALCS sweep — still stung for manager Buck Showalter.

"This is a real overwhelmingly sad time of the year for me," Showalter said. "Last night, we got back here, the sound of [packing] tape ripping, that was all going on. Of course, I've had that happen during the last week of the season a couple times for a different reason, so ... I don't know.

"There's disappointment. Sometimes, you also fight a feeling of just being ticked off because you realize how close it is. And it reminds you how little you really have an impact on it. Sometimes, things are just fateful, but it doesn't keep you from grinding it."

Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette plan to meet, along with team brass, to begin looking to next season. Pitchers and catchers are slated to return for spring training four months from Saturday, and the Orioles face many difficult roster decisions in the meantime.

Duquette emphasized he is confident the team will be able to continue to increase payroll in 2015, which is a must if it wishes to keep most of this club together.

The Orioles could lose Most Valuable Oriole Nelson Cruz, top reliever Andrew Miller, longest-tenured Oriole Nick Markakis and valuable bench player Delmon Young through free agency, and several players remaining under team control will reap healthy pay increases through the arbitration process.

"The important thing for our fans to know is that we've increased our payroll over the last couple years," Duquette said. "I expect we have the foundation for an additional increase. … We've got plenty of resources to field a competitive team here and we'll have an opportunity to meet with the ownership of the club and find out what the capability is, but I'm confident that we have the resources to field a good quality competitive team for next year. I expect that we'll be able to increase our payroll because the fans have responded to our team the last couple of years."

The Orioles fielded a club record-high Opening Day payroll of $107 million in 2014, a number that increased with the trade acquisitions of Miller, outfielder Alejandro De Aza and catcher Nick Hundley.

"When you have a group of players who have a good season, they deserve a raise based on their performance," Duquette said. "They earn it under the system and we'll have to fund those raises for the guys who do well and bring them back as the foundation of our team."

After recording a career-high 15 wins, right-hander Bud Norris ($5.3 million in 2014) figures to get a significant raise through arbitration, and right-hander Tommy Hunter ($3 million), left-hander Brian Matusz ($2.4 million), infielder Chris Davis ($10.35 million) and De Aza ($4.25 million) will also receive bumps.

After hitting a career-high 21 home runs, infielder-outfielder Steve Pearce enters his third year of arbitration eligibility and right-hander Chris Tillman, right-hander Miguel Gonzalez and infielder Ryan Flaherty will all be arbitration eligible for the first time in their careers, as will closer Zach Britton through Super 2 eligibility.

Just to keep their arbitration-eligible players, the Orioles' payroll could balloon into the $150 million range.

"It's a good challenge," Showalter said. "It's a good thing. We've got people we want and we have to try to find a way. There's certain things we can and can't do to keep the integrity of the organization and everything we're trying to do over the long haul, but every club does. I could name seven or eight guys we have to do some things with. Certainly, there's been discussions, but I think Dan and I [will] try to show all our cards to each other in the next few days."

There are easy decisions, like exercising 2015 club options on left-hander Wei-Yin Chen ($4.75 million) and right-hander Darren O'Day ($4.25 million). The Orioles are unlikely to exercise a $5 million option on Hundley with Wieters returning from Tommy John elbow surgery.

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The Orioles are expected to make keeping Markakis a priority. They will likely exercise a $2 million buyout on a mutual $17 million option for Markakis and attempt to negotiate a new contract.

The team realizes keeping Cruz and Miller in Orioles uniforms will be more difficult. Cruz has made his desire to stay in Baltimore no secret, but he will likely receive a multiyear deal after leading the majors with 40 home runs. Cruz signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles after struggling to find a long-term deal he liked. Teams would have lost a draft pick if they signed him because he received a qualifying offer from his previous club, the Texas Rangers, and his connection to the BioGenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal also hurt.

"It's good to know that Nelson likes it here," Duquette said. "You can tell just by watching him, he's the leader of the ballclub. And the young players look up to him, especially the young Latin players. … I really appreciate veteran leadership that he gave the team. Having said that, he came here to have a platform year to get himself re-established to get him a long-term deal and that's something we will have to consider."

The Orioles will almost certainly make Cruz a qualifying offer of $15.3 million so they can at least receive a draft pick if he signs elsewhere.

As for Miller, Duquette knows he's going to be in high demand.

"There's a lot of interest in Andrew Miller," Duquette said. "We knew that when we traded for him. He pitched well for us, good for us that we had him because I think he was the difference in the [Detroit] Tigers series that allowed us to advance. Obviously, we like Andrew and we like to have pitchers of that ilk on our ballclub."

The sobering fact is that the Orioles realize they can't keep this group intact and some difficult decisions loom ahead. Duquette will undoubtedly scour for bargains among six-year free agent lists and players taken off 40-man rosters.

Showalter often talks about the Orioles knowing who they are and who they aren't. The club has done a good job of not handcuffing itself with long-term free-agent deals. Their identity will always be one of a team that must hit on its bargains and will never compete with upper-echelon payrolls. Over the past three years, Showalter has had roster flexibility because many players have had minor-league options, an edge that has slowly dissipated.

"The more guys graduating, the better they become, the less they have options," Showalter said. "The moving parts come basically from optionable pieces. We will continue to try to out-opportunity people."

But Showalter realizes the cost of success is the challenge of keeping his players together.

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"We can't," Showalter said of keeping everyone. "That's one of the challenges we have in the offseason. It comes from some of the people that potentially could leave. That's the tough part. I don't want to say there'll be somebody else — we know there'll be another coach, another manager [someday]. That's the easy part. The hard part is about the players. That's where you create that."

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