SARASOTA, FLA. — When the Orioles officially report to spring training camp Tuesday, they will not be a better team than the one that finished fifth in the American League East last season. That should be fairly obvious.
The projected starting lineup will be largely the same as September’s, except for the departure of power-hitting catcher Welington Castillo. The starting rotation features two semi-proven young pitchers and a long list of unproven candidates after shedding erratic veterans Ubaldo Jiménez and Wade Miley. The bullpen figures to be without one of the game’s top closers for half the season.
No one should be surprised that the front office has reached this point without making a major acquisition because excecutive vice president Dan Duquette apparently loves keeping everyone in suspense, but this ready-or-not, here-we-come approach to building a competitive team is starting to fray the nerves of a shaky fan base.
Duquette has made it work before, but the fact that all was quiet on so many other fronts this winter makes it very hard to predict what might happen over the next two or three weeks.
Will the slow development of the free-agent market play right into his hands or create a late bidding frenzy that will leave the Orioles on the outside looking in until it’s too late to make any significant improvements.
And, for that matter, are the Orioles actually engaged in a semi-rebuild and don’t want their fans to know about it?
That would seem to be counterintuitive if Duquette’s history of staying in the moment is any indication, but the open-ended status of superstar Manny Machado creates a host of possible scenarios that could keep the O’s in a contend-now posture or push them toward a transitional season (or two).
The offers for Machado at baseball’s winter meetings obviously were not sufficient to give up a year of his services and a compensation draft choice, but a serious change in the circumstances of another club — as early as this spring — could create an opportunity for the Orioles to get a quality pitcher or a more significant package of young talent.
We finally got a hint about which way the pitching market might be moving when top starter Yu Darvish agreed to a six-year, $126 million deal with the Chicago Cubs on Friday. Former Oriole Jake Arrieta is still out there, but the Darvish deal should give everyone a pretty good idea of what the other starting pitchers near the top of the free-agent depth chart might command.
For the Orioles, who need a couple of starters more than just about anybody else, the big question will be whether any of the next-tier pitchers are going to be more willing to accept a shorter-term deal to get ahead of the market and get into camp right away.
Orioles ownership has been known to expand the sometimes restrictive parameters the team has placed on free-agent deals, but there’s little question that the decision to do that with Jiménez and the disappointing results derived from that four-year deal have reduced the franchise’s appetite for long-term risk.
The pursuit of a well-priced free agent is also complicated by several other factors. The Orioles bear little resemblance to a contending team right now and one decent starting pitcher probably isn’t going to change that perception. Throw in the likelihood that a lot of pitchers would rather play in the DH-less National League and might be wary of pitching against the big-swinging AL East teams in hitter-friendly Camden Yards, and the O’s are a tough sell.
They might be in better position to acquire a left-handed power hitter, but nothing about their outlook is going to change if they fail to fill the No. 3 and No. 4 slots in their rotation.
In the meantime, expect to hear a lot about how good Miguel Castro and Nestor Cortes look in early workouts.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and follow him @Schmuckstop on Twitter.