SARASOTA, FLA. — It was an exhibition game in every sense of the word. It didn't count in anybody's standings and the stats generated by the WBC-depleted Orioles and the Dominican Republic's star-studded WBC lineup on Tuesday will soon be lost to history.
If anything will be remembered about the Orioles' 5-4 win at Ed Smith Stadium, it was the sight of Manny Machado in a blue, red and gray uniform with Dominicana across his chest.
No great surprise there, of course. Machado has been ticketed for the World Baseball Classic for almost a year, and he said from the start he would play for his ancestral homeland, but actually seeing him in an opposing uniform in the Orioles' spring ballpark had to send a shiver through the surprisingly sparse crowd.
No one wants to contemplate the likelihood Machado could turn up at Camden Yards some day in a Yankees uniform or that of some other deep-pocketed team…not even Machado, who acknowledged on Tuesday that — even after months of anticipation — it was odd being the enemy in such a friendly environment.
"It's a little different, but this is home," he said. "This is my home. This is where I belong, but it's fun to be on the other side for a little bit, knowing that you're still on both sides and you're on the [Orioles] side at heart. It's exciting."
Machado is under club control for two more seasons, and his unsettled long-term contract situation will loom over the Orioles until they sign him to a lengthy extension, trade him for a boatload of young talent or allow him to become a free agent after the 2018 season. Only one of those options guarantees that the next WBC will be the only time he might come back here in a different jersey.
"You know, it's not up to me," Machado said. "I'm going to do all I can to try to be a part of the Oriole organization. It's the only team I know and the only thing I know about. It's going to be a fortunate situation [either way], but my heart is always going to be here."
Two years might seem like a long time, but the clock is ticking and the Orioles would be wise to begin the process of deciding whether they will be in or out on Machado before the decision gets made for them.
"You don't have to remind me of that," manager Buck Showalter said Tuesday, "but you know, the clock was ticking on Chris Davis. The clock was ticking on Mark Trumbo. The clock was ticking on Darren O'Day. Trust me, the clock is ticking on all of us."
Indeed it is. Pitching ace Chris Tillman is in his walk year, Adam Jones, Machado and Zach Britton can become free agents after the 2018 season and emerging star Jonathan Schoop will reach free agent eligibility the year after that.
That's why everyone in camp seems to be echoing the same mantra — just getting to the playoffs is no longer enough. The nucleus of this Orioles roster could begin to unravel next winter, and anyone who has been paying attention can feel the sense of urgency.
Frankly, it's difficult to envision this team still featuring Tillman, Jones and Machado two years from now, though the Orioles faced a similar situation when Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and Wei-Yin Chen reached free agency for the first time after the 2015 season, and two of them were still around last year. No one knows what the market conditions will be that far down the road but ownership would be wise to be more proactive this time.
The front office has little choice but to wait and see how Tillman rebounds from his shoulder issue, but figuring something out with Jones would be good start. If the O's don't add a few years to his contract before it expires, he very likely could be boxed out in the effort to re-sign or extend the team's younger stars.
Jones has given every indication he wants to stay, and his positive impact on the franchise over the past nine years is impossible to discount. If nothing else, keeping him happy and settled will make it easier to convince Machado and the rest of the team's young stars that Baltimore is still the place to be.
That's a lot to ponder just because Machado played an otherwise meaningless exhibition game in a different jersey on Tuesday, but —at the very least — that should serve as a reminder that the front office needs to work hard to preserve the fabric of this team.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and follow him @Schmuckstop on Twitter.