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Orioles better for locking up nucleus, kicking window of opportunity further open

Orioles' Adam Jones (10) celebrates with Chris Davis (19) and Manny Machado after hitting a three-run home run in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards on Sept. 13, 2015 in Baltimore.
Orioles' Adam Jones (10) celebrates with Chris Davis (19) and Manny Machado after hitting a three-run home run in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards on Sept. 13, 2015 in Baltimore.(Greg Fiume / Getty Images)

It's fair to debate the wisdom of committing so much money to slugger Chris Davis when the Orioles still have not satisfied enough of their offseason needs to be considered a significantly better team than the one that lost half of its games in 2015.

There might have been better ways to divide up $161 million — if that was even an option — to put the Orioles in position to return to the playoffs this year, but there is the bigger picture to consider.

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To fully appreciate that concept, you have to think back to where this club was at this time last year. At that time, just about everyone was assuming there would be a huge free-agent exodus at the end of last season and the oft-cited window of opportunity to win with the current group of players was getting ready to slam shut.

Well, it didn't. The decision by catcher Matt Wieters to accept the Orioles' one-year qualifying offer was the first sign that the front office might be able to hold the nucleus of the team together. The signing of Darren O'Day to a top-market four-year deal was the second. But it took the giant seven-year deal that Davis signed last week to assure that the Orioles will have a large chunk of their explosive offense intact for the foreseeable future.

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Think about it. Davis is signed through 2022. Adam Jones is locked up through 2018 and would like to sign an extension. Manny Machado is under team control for three more seasons and Jonathan Schoop for four. J.J Hardy has two more guaranteed years and a vesting option for 2018.

That's called stability, and guaranteeing it over a significant period is a major step toward being a regular participant in the postseason. The Orioles probably could have achieved some semblance of it by letting Davis go and using that money to lock up a couple of other big-name free agents, but there was little to indicate that amount was available for anyone else. There also was no guarantee that the right players could be acquired to maintain the positive clubhouse chemistry that has been such an important part of the team's success over the past four years.

While we're at it, let's not discount Davis' tremendous popularity or disregard the likelihood that a signing of such magnitude will make Baltimore a more attractive destination for free agents in the future.

Last season was a disappointment, but manager Buck Showalter was quick to remind everyone during Davis' news conference last week that the Orioles have won more (regular-season) games over the past four years than any other American League team. That distinction is going to be hard to defend and extend this year without a sharp upturn in the performance of the starting rotation, but the organization can now focus heavily on developing pitching over the next three years.

Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette continues to search for at least one veteran pitcher to flesh out the rotation. But — even if he succeeds — it is going to take turnaround performances by Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez and a developmental leap by Kevin Gausman to give the Orioles enough steady starting pitching to be a real player in a division that appears to be stronger from top to bottom than last year.

Maybe that's asking too much. Maybe it's a stretch to envision the Orioles back in the playoffs in 2016, depending on what the front office can accomplish over the next month or so. But the window of opportunity is still open and it could stay that way for a long time if the Orioles are able to take advantage of a boatload of picks in this year's draft.

The organization certainly hoped to be further along at this point in its developmental arc, but injuries to top prospects Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey have created a minor league pitching gap that might take a couple more years to fill.

Barring a late-winter pitching acquisition, the Orioles will give Triple-A prospects Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson the opportunity this spring to fill the fifth slot in the rotation and provide the starting depth the club so sorely needs.

In a perfect orange-and-black world, one of them will pop and the Orioles will ride their power-packed lineup back to the postseason.

Even in an imperfect world where the Orioles end up in the middle of the pack this year, the long view is brighter with Davis locked up and the nucleus of the offense in place for the long haul.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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