For core group of Orioles, this season might be last chance to win World Series together

The Orioles have kept a core group together through their resurgence, but that group might soon split up.

For Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, it took seeing former teammate Nick Markakis in an Atlanta Braves jersey during a spring training game last week to remind him that every baseball season brings its share of change.

Like many of his teammates, Davis thought Markakis, the team's longest tenured Oriole, would always wear orange and black. When Markakis signed a four-year deal with the Braves after discussions with the Orioles stalled, several players were shocked.

But in many ways, the Orioles were lucky to keep the same core group of players together throughout their three-year resurgence to respectability, capping it with last season's American League East title and a trip to the AL Championship Series, the best season the club has had in 17 years.

The Orioles' 274 wins the past three seasons are the most the franchise has compiled over a three-year span in three decades, when the 1982-'84 teams won 277 games, including the club's last World Series title in 1983.

That success is difficult to maintain these days, mainly because turnover is an annual part of the game — as seen by the departures of Markakis, major league home run leader Nelson Cruz and lefty reliever Andrew Miller this past offseason — but over the past three seasons, it has hit other franchises harder than it has the Orioles.

After last year's success, the Orioles open one of their most ballyhooed seasons in recent memory Monday when they open the season on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

For this collective group, it is likely the start of their last season together.

The Orioles have 11 players who will become free agents at the end of the year, meaning nearly half of the team's 25-man roster could walk. This could be the final opportunity for the group of Orioles that resuscitated the francise to win a World Series.

"I've been thinking about it," Davis said. "And it really was evident [Thursday] seeing Nicky in a Braves uniform. I think we all knew that he had kind of turned the page and that things were going to kind of be different this year, but I think seeing him in a Braves uniform did kind of instill a sense of urgency that, 'OK this group might not be together for the next few years. This might be our last chance to make a run together.' … We all care a lot about each other, not only on the field but off the field and we want to see each other do well. I think it would be a lot of fun. It would be exciting to do with this group of guys."

Two of the team's cornerstone players — Davis and catcher Matt Wieters — headline the group of pending free agents. The Orioles could also lose two rotation pieces, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and right-hander Bud Norris, and two of their top relievers, right-handers Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter. Outfielders Steve Pearce and Alejandro De Aza are also among the club's free agents.

"I know we have a lot of guys who are going to be free agents and it's a business," said center fielder Adam Jones, who is signed through 2018. "Change happens. It's going to be different next year. That's just how it's going to be. But you're really reminded of that stuff if you're not good around the All-Star break.

"That's when trades are proposed and guys go on the block. But the focus here is to be good at the All-Star break and be in a position of being buyers and not sellers and hey, work ourselves into October like we did last year and put ourselves in another position to do something special."

Orioles manager Buck Showalter hasn't hidden from the reality of the future, saying many times this spring that the franchise's farm system must be in place to help offset free-agent losses and that the team's drafts the next two seasons — the Orioles should garner multiple compensation picks if they lose key players to free agency — will be critical.

Showalter said any notion of the team's window of winning closing isn't a topic of conversation inside the clubhouse.

"I think it's a topic with fans and Orioles fans and it should be," Showalter said. "But for the players who play the game, they're concentrating on that first game and the second game the third game. We live in a day-to-day world. We let other people worry about how it projects out."

However, like Davis said, Pearce said this past offseason is a reminder that teams can change quickly.

"We're not ignorant," Pearce said. "We know a lot of guys left. There were a lot of moves that had to be made last year, also. So it's just the way the game is played. We understand there are tough decisions that have to be made on the other side of things. But we are just going to control what we can control and that's just how we have to go about."

Shortstop J.J. Hardy, who signed a three-year extension during the postseason, knows what it's like to have free agency loom, but he said pending free agents will be motivated to perform well.

"I think it's a good thing for our team because everyone who is a free agent wants to have the best possible year they can and that's good for our team," Hardy said. "Looking at it this year, we'll take care of our business, go about it that way and I think everything will kind of take care of itself in the offseason or the end of the season."

Many prognosticators have predicted the Orioles will fall into decline this season. Despite posting 96 victories and winning the division by 12 games last season, the club isn't a favorite to repeat as AL East champions. And that keeps this group focused more on the underdog label they've been so comfortable with, rather than on losing key players at the end of the season.

"I don't think this team has really paid a lot of attention to outside expectations," Davis said. "That's one of the reasons we've been so successful. We understand guys are going to pick us last every year. We're not sexy. We're not flashy. We don't have a lot of big names. We don't have a lot of big contracts, but we know how to play the game and we know how to win. And we know how to do it together. I think that's a big thing. I think the biggest goal for us is to stay healthy and if we're able to do that, I think you're going to see a team that can win 90 games and compete in the AL East again and compete in the postseason."

Davis admits to having fleeting moments of wondering if this will be his final season in an Orioles uniform, but he said once the season starts, there's only one goal.

"I think it's normal to think, 'Is this the last time I'm going to go through that?'" Davis said. "But once the season starts, I'm going to enjoy the season. I'm going to have a good time. But I'm extremely determined and I'm playing this season with one goal in mind and that's to play in a World Series."

Jones, now the club's longest-tenured player, echoed that sentiment.

"I think we have a lot of guys who really enjoy being here in Baltimore," Jones said. "Obviously, contract things, those are all handled differently. … We know people are going to weigh their options. It's a business. … But once April 6 starts, all that stuff is out the window. No one is worried about next year. You're worried about April 6 and then the next day until the end of the season.

"We won [the division] fair and square," Jones added. "This year, we've got to do it all over again. Nobody remembers last year. It's not 2014, it's 2015. Let's do it all over again because this division is tough and it's going to be fun because everybody in my eyes has gotten better. I've told [other players] we play against in our division. 'I can't wait for the battle. I can't wait for the season.'"

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°