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End of an era: Will 2018 mark the last ride for the Orioles as we know them?

End of an era: Will 2018 mark the last ride for the Orioles as we know them?
Orioles' Adam Jones and Manny Machado at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Success is cyclical, and when the Orioles brought winning baseball back to Baltimore six years ago, there was no clear time limit on their window of success. But over the years, it became clear that 2018 was the make-or-break year.

The Orioles could undergo a dramatic face-lift by this time next year, if not sooner depending on how well they play this season, as there could be big changes from top to bottom — on the field, in the dugout and inside the Warehouse.

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The two on-field faces of the franchise — shortstop Manny Machado and center fielder Adam Jones — are eligible to reach free agency at the end of the season, as are bullpen cornerstones Zach Britton and Brad Brach. The contracts of executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are set to expire at that time as well.

Make no mistake, the Orioles aren’t new to having to replace key parts. From Nick Markakis to Nelson Cruz, they’ve had to reload during this era, but nothing comparable to this.

Six years ago, the Orioles put together their first winning season since 1997, and it marked the first of three playoff appearances over a five-year span. Last season, the Orioles took a major step back despite returning most of the pieces from a playoff team the previous year. On Sept. 5, they were three games over .500 and just one game out of the second American League wild card. But they lost 19 of their last 23 games, finishing in the AL East cellar for the first time since 2011.

Machado, the franchise’s best homegrown position player since Cal Ripken Jr., will reach free agency at the age of 26 and could command a contract exceeding Giancarlo Stanton’s record 13-year, $325 million deal. Jones, the team’s steadiest player over the past decade and the clubhouse leader, could also leave. Britton and Brach were almost shipped out at last year’s nonwaiver trade deadline.

In a reloaded AL East, with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox built for long-term success, the task will be formidable. But the Orioles’ recent success is built on proving doubters wrong.

This group now has the chance to go all-in for one last ride together.

“I think there’s a sense of solidified purpose,” Showalter said. “They realize the way the game works and sometimes the paths have a way of always coming back again, but in this case I think everybody knows the reality of what could be. But I think there’s a real solidarity to the purpose of what we’re trying to do here and why. It’s always important, but I think everybody gets it.”

One last look

Machado has been penciled in for pinstripes for two years, when a New York tabloid put him and Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper in Yankees uniforms on the front page. This spring, the Machado-to-New-York noise got louder, coming after an offseason in which the Orioles openly gauged trade interest in the three-time All-Star — even listening to division rivals such as the Yankees — before deciding they wouldn’t get what they would need for their best player.

Machado has handled it all in stride, which is remarkable considering he is still 3½ months shy of his 26th birthday. Any other young player could’ve entered the Orioles clubhouse last month with one foot out the door. But the team’s success directly correlates with Machado’s big league arrival in 2012, and even though all signs say his days with the team are numbered, he’s committed to the uniform he’s currently wearing.

“I'm going out there and I'm going to give it all,” Machado said. “I'm going to give it my all like I always have. This is the organization that drafted me, this is the organization I've played for. I've become who I am today because of this organization. Whatever happens after this season, it's part of the business. It's part of everything. But you know what? I'm always going to have the Orioles and Baltimore in my heart.”

Many predict a monster season for Machado. He’s returned from third base to shortstop, his original position, a move delayed by his deference to former starter J.J. Hardy. He had the best spring training of his career, and he has everything to gain — both on and off the field — by playing well.

The time has likely already passed to engage Machado about an extension — and the team hasn’t made any recent overtures in any case — because he has little to gain by negotiating his worth with one team when he can open the bidding up to 29 other clubs after the season.

The Orioles could face the same situation all over again this time next year with second baseman Jonathan Schoop, whose walk year is 2019.

Jones, 32, also continues to wait for a dialogue that hasn’t begun. Other than his contributions on the field — he’s received five All-Star nods and four Gold Gloves while being the only player in baseball with seven straight 25-homer seasons — few athletes have done more philanthropically for the city of Baltimore than Jones.

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Early in spring training, Jones said he’s intent on playing next season in a place where he knows he can win, saying he has a growing number of friends who have World Series rings that he doesn’t.

“There are a bunch of variables in the equation,” Jones said. “It doesn’t benefit anybody until something’s on the table. First and foremost, you’ve got to take care of yourself. It’s self-preservation, man. I forgot about Schoop. Schoop’s got one more year of arbitration. … That’s awesome. It’s great when guys put up numbers year after year, and then you look up there and [think], ‘Dang, we’ve all been here a while.’ That’s just truly humbling. It’s a process.”

The Orioles also don’t have a history of proactivity in locking up their key players before free agency. The team’s last two instances of keeping one its stars from reaching free agency were the three-year, $40 million deal given to Hardy during the 2014 postseason and the six-year, $85.5 million extension Jones signed during the 2012 season. Jones had one more year of team control remaining when he signed. Since then, the Orioles retained key players — first baseman Chris Davis, reliever Darren O’Day and designated hitter Mark Trumbo among them — but not before those players officially became free agents, thus forcing themselves to outbid other clubs, and possibly themselves, to keep them.

The Orioles entered the offseason in limbo. They could have moved Machado and other pending free agents, as the Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates did, but chose to keep them for one final run this year.

There is an emerging group that could make up the core group going forward, a talented batch led by Rookie of the Year finalist Trey Mancini, starting pitchers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, and top prospects Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle, Chance Sisco and Hunter Harvey. Additionally, there’s pitching depth in the lower minors to be excited about.

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After an inactive offseason, Duquette reloaded the team, focused on restructuring a starting rotation that had the highest ERA in the majors last year, by adding right-hander Andrew Cashner and re-signing right-hander Chris Tillman on shorter deals, while also filling holes with low-risk minor league signings.

“We should have a very competitive team,” Duquette said. “These things are cyclical, but if we can find the pitching, we should be able to contend. We were able to find the pitching and have that in 2012, so we’ll see if we can do the same thing, but the core players we have are still pretty good. We still have the core players to have a competitive team and if we can add the pitching, then we’ve got an opportunity to contend.”

Duquette conceded that he could learn the lifespan of this group early on. Eighteen of the Orioles’ first 24 games are against teams that went to the playoffs last season.

“This is the big leagues, man,” Duquette said. “So, there’s a lot of guys who have a lot at stake and want to have good years, so that usually bodes well for a club depending on health. Health is key. But we have another opportunity to compete here.

“It’s a big challenge this year, especially with those teams we’re playing early. … I think you’ve got to give it a shot and evaluate the team, see how guys do, see how you can compete, see how your health is, see how the division shakes out. We’ve got some time to do that.”

If the Orioles struggle and fall out of the race early, the club would likely move some, if not all, of its pending free agents at the nonwaiver trade deadline in July. Britton, another lifelong Oriole who is the organization’s longest-tenured player, wouldn’t want to see that happen. He remembers sitting in the dugout after Game 4 of the American League Championship Series in Kansas City, watching the Royals celebrate their ticket to the World Series.

“We were so close that year,” Britton said. “And the worst thing would be that we’re terrible and everybody gets traded at the deadline. It could happen depending on how we’re playing, but I think we all know that would be a crappy way to go out, especially considering how well we played as an organization. … There’s definitely a little extra fire. It’s not that it shouldn’t already be there, but I think this year especially, ‘Hey, we’ve been talking about this year for a really long time.’ Three years ago, [we knew] that we were all going to be free agents at the same time. You want to win one.”

If you put stock in projections, the Orioles are closer to a repeat trip to the division cellar than a return to the playoffs.

“I think it is one of those things where we will have a little bit of a sense of urgency,” Brach said. “I think it’s probably more so because of the way we finished last year. It’s not necessarily because we’re not sure what’s going to happen next year. … It’s one of those things where I think guys are trying to take pride in and really try to work to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Front office flux

There could also potentially be a future beyond this season without Showalter, Duquette or both. Their paths have been linked since they received extensions after the 2012 season that carried them through this season.

Showalter emphasized this offseason that there are more people in the game who work on one-year deals than those who don’t.

“How about one day?” Showalter said. “I don’t want to hear about it. … So, let’s keep a grip on reality here, so the last thing you’re going to hear me do is talk about it from my standpoint, so hopefully they’re following that lead a little bit. … We are all very lucky to be doing this every day.”

Managing partner Peter G. Angelos — who raised payroll every season since 2012 before this year (this year’s projected Opening Day payroll is about $20 million short of last year’s club-record $164 million) — will turn 89 in July, but still has final word on personnel matters. His sons, John and Louis, have become noticeably more involved in the daily operations of the club this offseason, and Brady Anderson has played a larger role in negotiating contracts.

As with the players who are pending free agents, the futures of Duquette and Showalter are intertwined with this year’s success. They were the key catalysts to bringing winning baseball back to Baltimore, but if there was a time to make a change at either position, it would make sense to do so as the roster faces an overhaul. But both could also very likely return. Angelos has proved to be a loyal boss to both men.

“The focus should be on this season,” Duquette said. “That’s not my choice, but I enjoy working in Baltimore. I like the fans. I enjoy working with our players. I’d like to have a competitive year and continue. It’s always about winning the pennant and the World Series. There’s still an opportunity to do that.”

This could be the final ride for the Orioles as we’ve grown to know them. But this is not yet the time for nostalgia. First, an important season must play out.

“It’s always pushing forward,” Showalter said. “I want our players to have that [mentality]. Whatever happens today — the good and the bad — let’s learn from it and let’s push forward. I don’t have to have to look at this season coming up to be nostalgic. It’s about being a member of the Baltimore Orioles. I was brought into that, and after two weeks, I knew the special thing I had the chance to be a part of. If you’re just now getting nostalgic, you’re in the wrong place.”

Orioles renaissance

In 2012, the Orioles ended a streak of 14 straight losing seasons and from 2012 to 2016, no American League team won more games. Here’s a year-by-year look at the club’s return to competitiveness.

Year; Record (AL East); Finish

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2011; 69-93 (5th); no playoffs

2012; 93-69 (2nd); Lost in ALDS

2013; 85-77 (3rd); no playoffs

2014; 96-66 (1st); Lost in ALCS

2015; 81-81 (3rd); no playoffs

2016; 89-73 (2nd); Lost in AL wild-card game

2017; 75-87 (5th); no playoffs

Window closing?

Over the next two offseasons, a large number of the Orioles’ key figures will be eligible for free agency or have contracts expiring. Here’s a look at what the club could lose by the end of 2019.

After 2018 season

Mgr Buck Showalter

EVP Dan Duquette

SS Manny Machado

CF Adam Jones

RP Zach Britton

RP Brad Brach

SP Chris Tillman

After 2019

2B Jonathan Schoop

RP Darren O’Day

DH Mark Trumbo

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