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Keeping the band together: Orioles stick with what's familiar, retain core leadership group

The Orioles valued their core over the past four seasons, and spent everything they could to keep it together.

Adam Jones sits at his corner locker inside the Orioles clubhouse at Ed Smith Stadium and surveys the room. This is Jones' 14th professional season and ninth with the Orioles, so he has seen players come and go. But walking into the Orioles clubhouse this spring and seeing several key faces gone was a thought Jones didn't even want to indulge.

"I don't like change too much," Jones said. "I like to have the same things, having the same old gloves, just the same simple routines. I don't necessarily like change and when I'm going to battle with a group of men, I think that I've got the best group of men in the world. So why would I want that to change? Obviously, you can add pieces and stuff like that. That's the business. But the core group, I wouldn't even want to touch it."

Jones' lobbying of Orioles ownership to focus on retaining the club's key free agents this past offseason has been well documented. And the club responded with an unprecedented offseason, spending more than $240 million on free agents, including the re-signing of first baseman Chris Davis, setup man Darren O'Day and catcher Matt Wieters.

The return of those players keeps the franchise's core group intact — something few inside or outside the Orioles clubhouse expected at the end of last year's disappointing 81-81 season. It also reunited the team's five unquestioned clubhouse leaders, which might be the biggest reason to believe in the Orioles in 2016.

In the age of free agency, turnover is common. But the Orioles' group of veteran leaders — Jones, O'Day, Wieters, Davis and shortstop J.J. Hardy — have a rare opportunity to play together for a fifth consecutive year this season. It's no coincidence that the Orioles have had the best record in the American League over the past four seasons with this group, lifting the franchise from the doldrums of 14 straight losing seasons.

"We've been together for four years, but we also went through the losing together, so we all know what it was like to just get beat on and stomped on together," Jones said. "We'd been through battles with these guys, so at the end of the day there's no sense for me to not do it with these guys."

They came together in sort of a perfect storm kind of way. They were all around the same age, all growing as players. They all faced their share of adversity. Now all except for Wieters have reached their 30th birthdays, and they all carry their experience as the defining torch of their leadership.

"Even from the get-go, I knew that the situation we had in Baltimore was a unique experience. We had a lot of guys come up together. We had a lot of guys go through the minor leagues together," Wieters said. "We had a lot of guys go through the same struggles during the same time and the same high points. We were fortunate to have some good veterans to help us through those early stages.

"More than anything, it's nice to look at the guy next to you and know he's going through the same thing you're going through or he just went through it or he's just about to go through it. I think that's the most unique experience, that we've all been around the same age and been through the same experiences."

Choosing to stay

All five could be playing somewhere else now. Jones signed an extension in 2012 and Hardy in 2014. Davis is locked up for seven years and O'Day for the next four. Wieters, who took the team's one-year qualifying offer, is the only one in the group who isn't under club control through 2018. But they all decided that Baltimore was where they wanted to be, to try to continue the winning ways they started together.

"It's becoming more and more apparent in today's game that it's all cyclical," O'Day said. "You have a certain period of time with this crop of players and then it just gets too expensive, except for a few teams who can just pay their way out of that. But I think what they're trying to do is see that they have some young talent that's still affordable that is too good to waste, so they've chosen to extend it and go for it for four more years.

"As a player, that's what you want to do. You don't want to just bide your time. Nobody wants to be on a rebuilding team. I think what these free-agent signings indicate is that they like their guys. They know us. They like us. They value us. It shows a commitment to winning and that's exciting because we all like each other and all value each other as players and teammates. It's easy to come back when you see your buddies from the last three, four years coming back."

Davis understands the opportunity is rare and said it was one of the major reasons he chose to return to Baltimore.

"You know you have something special that you don't get every day in this game," said Davis, who signed a club-record seven-year, $161 million deal in the offseason. "There's a lot to be said for that. … I didn't realize it until I got back here, but I told myself, 'Man, that was a big part of it.' I think it's something a lot of guys take for granted. When you talk about the money and all the distractions that come along with it, at the end of the day, if you're not happy where you are, it doesn't matter how much money you're making. It really doesn't.

"I don't say that trying to be disrespectful, but you have to love what you do and you've got to love the people you work with. That's really what it came down to for me. We could have continued to drag it out and wait and wait, but at the time, I was like, 'This just feels right.' It felt right all along. There's kind of part of me that wished I had done it sooner. But I'm really happy with the way things worked out. And I hope we can keep this group together for the next seven years."

Yes, the Orioles have been successful the past four seasons, making two playoff appearances, winning one AL East title and making a trip to the AL Championship Series. But Baltimore has still gone 32 years since its last World Series title, and other organizations also came close before rebuilding.

And after coming within four wins of reaching the World Series in 2014, the Orioles let Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz — two key contributors and leaders — leave via free agency, something that wasn't received well by the players.

Before being traded to the Orioles, Hardy was part of a Minnesota Twins team that made it to the playoffs six times in nine years but unloaded some of its veterans and began to rebuild after the 2010 season. That's when Hardy was traded to the Orioles. So seeing the Orioles retain their core free agents was refreshing for Hardy to see. Hardy conceded he was worried.

"Looking back last year when we had this many potential free agents at the end of the year and I had just signed an extension and last year was my first year of that, just thinking what could have been had we lost some of these guys, yeah, it scared me a little bit," Hardy said. "When I signed my extension, I did it because I trusted that Buck [Showalter], trusted that [executive vice president] Dan [Duquette], trusted that everyone who had it in their power to make this organization better, I trusted that they were going to.

"But if Darren leaves, if C.D. leaves, if Wieters leaves, it would have been a totally different story. So the fact that those guys stuck around, yeah, it's a lot better. It's more comforting to us that we know they're going to spend to keep the guys we need to keep."

Leading their own way

As much as these five players contribute to the Orioles' success on the field, their leadership off it plays just as monumental a role. Athletes don't slap the label of being a leader upon themselves. Those around them do, but Showalter learned to trust these five to police the clubhouse and take care of team matters in their own way.

"Sometimes the graduation gets forced on them," Showalter said. "With these guys, you don't have to. I really don't have a moniker I put on it, this is what I call it. … How many people really want that responsibility? These guys do. I think the ability to pass it around helps them out a little bit."

O'Day said policing the clubhouse is a task the veterans have embraced jointly.

"I think the message is that we really don't have a lot of rules," O'Day said. "Just respect your teammates and that pretty much covers about everything because if you're acting like a [jerk], you're not respecting your teammates. It's pretty simple. If you're respecting your teammates, respecting the game, respecting everything your teammates have done, the work everybody's done to get to this point and stay here and all the work you've done in the offseason, then play hard."

Each of the Orioles' leaders has his own story — from former first-rounders to undrafted free agents, from hyped prospects to reclamation projects — and has his own way of leading.

"We all lead in certain ways," Jones said. "But at the end of the day we all have the same want. We all want to high-five each other, go home and kiss our kids, go to sleep and do it all over again."

Jones is the face of the franchise — personable but intense at times. He's unmistakably vocal, never one to disguise his feelings. He keeps the clubhouse loose, but he'd rather be judged on how hard he plays the game.

It's rare for a reliever to be considered one of the team's top leaders, but O'Day isn't a regular player. He wears many hats — players union rep, fantasy football commissioner, team gathering organizer — and he takes each duty seriously. O'Day earned an animal biology degree from Florida and considered medical school had baseball not worked out, so there's thought behind every word he speaks.

Jones calls Wieters the team general, always stoic and on an even keel, fitting characteristics for a catcher who is essentially the general on the field. Over his career, Wieters has been good at keeping things in perspective and calm over a long season.

Hardy, the team's most veteran player with 10 years of service time, is quiet. He's comfortable in the shadows but leads by example. He's not vocal, but there's no doubt his words carry weight with his fellow infielders. And his steady glove at shortstop is calming both on and off the field.

Then there's Davis, the slugger who is a quintessential kid at heart. His personality is as big as his bat. He can be a jokester but is also aware that he and his teammates are being paid to play a kid's game.

"You need that because not everyone can see it from the same way," Hardy said. "Some guys maybe won't hear the vocal guy, but they'll see someone else. It's nice to have different positions — the pitcher, the catcher. A lot of times people say the catcher is the leader because he's just in charge of so much. It's different positions, different personalities, different ways to go about things. I don't think any of us would call ourselves leaders. You get that from everyone else. We just go about our business like we do and that title kind of gets slapped on you by other people."

Together, they mold the clubhouse. From their first days in the big leagues, third baseman Manny Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop flocked to Hardy.

There's no reliever — or pitcher — who doesn't value the words of O'Day. Jones and Davis keep the clubhouse loose, Wieters keeps it steady.

"Just to be able to hang around a long time earns you some respect," O'Day said. "Guys lead in different ways. Sometimes you have to be a little more verbal with guys, but it's neat to see that shift and see how guys might have learned something from you without you even saying anything. Guys are watching, they're observing. We're tuned in. That's something we kind of pride ourselves on is the details and paying attention to the little things. The young guys, they pick up on things quickly without us having to say anything."

At one point, they were watchers, too, learning from the veterans before them, some of whom weren't stars. As a young player with the Milwaukee Brewers, Hardy watched Craig Counsell, now the Brewers manager who won World Series titles with the then-Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks as a player. Hardy said he modeled his quiet, blue-collar approach after Counsell. As a rookie with the Los Angeles Angels, O'Day took cues from reliever Darren Oliver, who played two decades in the majors. Later with the Texas Rangers, O'Day learned from veteran position players such as Michael Young and Adrian Beltre.

Jones and Wieters mentioned Derrek Lee as a leader, even though Lee played just half a season with the Orioles in 2011. In his early days, Jones paid attention to Markakis and later marveled at Vladimir Guerrero's work ethic. Wieters pointed to former Orioles Ty Wigginton and Miguel Tejada.

Even though he was more of a contemporary, O'Day said he learned about leadership from former Orioles closer Jim Johnson.

"I've come to realize that it's OK to correct a guy because if a guy is really screwing up and he takes offense to your correction it comes from insecurity as a teammate," O'Day said. "That's one thing I learned from Jim. You don't necessarily have to be best friends with everybody, but you have to be a teammate. Jim wasn't necessarily worried about everyone being his friend, so there's a difference. Sometimes you have to make corrections for the good of the team."

Fledgling leaders

Other leaders are gradually starting to emerge. Closer Zach Britton and right-hander Chris Tillman have embraced such roles and even though they're still young, Machado and Schoop have worked hard to lead by example. Caleb Joseph has helped mentor some of the organization's young catchers.

Ultimately, Showalter said, it's about having good players who play the game the right way.

"Our best players have to play the game the right way," Showalter said. "If your best players don't play the game right — the most talented guys — you're [screwed]. … And our guys, they all realize the weight their words carry and they don't use them callously. They don't just sit there and talk [trash]."

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Orioles leaders

The Orioles have won the most games in the American League since 2012 and have gone to great lengths to keep their leadership group from that period intact.

Adam

Jones

Age: 30

Acquired: Trade with Mariners, 2008

Re-signed: Six years, $85.5 million, 2012

Signed through: 2018

J.J. Hardy

Age: 33

Acquired: Trade with Twins, 2010

Re-signed: Three years, $40 million, 2014

Signed through: 2017 (with 2018 vesting option)

Chris

Davis

Age: 30

Acquired: Trade with Rangers, 2011

Re-signed: Seven years, $161 million, 2016

Signed through: 2022

Darren O'Day

Age: 33

Acquired: Claimed off waivers from Rangers, 2011

Re-signed: Four years, $31 million, 2015

Signed through: 2019

Matt Wieters

Age: 29

Acquired: Drafted first round, 2007

Re-signed: One year, $15.8 million qualifying offer, 2015

Signed through: 2016

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