Resurgent O's look to market to solidify lineup
Middle-of-the-order bat, keystone on club's free-agent wish list
BALTIMORE -- There were myriad mostly under-the-radar moves that put the Baltimore Orioles back on baseball's map. The organization posted its first winning record in 15 years and advanced to the American League Division Series in Dan Duquette's first season as the O's executive vice president of baseball operations.
While Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have raised expectations for the 2013 season, the pair have made it clear that any moves made will be done to build a successful club, without sacrificing the chances of long-term sustainability.
How will that come into play this winter?
Look for the Orioles, who are most in need of a frontline starter, to add a middle-of-the-order bat and solidify their second-base situation. They will place a priority on acquiring players under team control to help supplement the young core currently in place. Duquette has said numerous times he is wary of signing a free-agent pitcher to a deal for more than three years. While the organization has granted bigger deals to position players under previous regimes, there isn't a lot of payroll flexibility on the horizon.
Three of Duquette's offseason signings -- pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen and infielder Wilson Betemit -- have guaranteed contracts for at least next season. Along with Adam Jones' extension and the inherited deals of J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, who was signed to a Major League deal, these pacts total approximately $53 million.
The Orioles also have 15 arbitration-eligible players. Duquette said earlier this offseason that the organization feels it can fit "most of them" into next year's plans, which could push their payroll number up another $25-30 million.
There are decisions to be made on club options for first baseman Mark Reynolds and reliever Luis Ayala. Plus, the Orioles will also consider bringing back free agents Joe Saunders, Nate McLouth and Jim Thome, if both parties agree and it fits into their payroll constraints. The organization isn't expected to try to re-sign free agents Endy Chavez, Nick Johnson, Randy Wolf and Bill Hall.
"We should be able to continue to field a highly-competitive team within the revenues of our market," said Duquette at the dawn of the first full offseason of his tenure.
Given the state of the Minor League system, which is improving but remains devoid of any top-tier position-player prospects after the ascension of Manny Machado, the O's should remain a fairly attractive option for six-year free agents. Duquette has never shied away from adding depth, and the organization had more roster moves than games during the regular season. The team is expected to ramp up its international efforts, as well.
Players can start signing with other clubs after midnight ET on Friday.
Reynolds is the biggie here. The Orioles hold an $11 million option that, if they opt to decline it, wouldn't get much cheaper if they decide to offer him arbitration. Reynolds got off to the worst start of his career -- struggling offensively most of the season. But he did post more than 20 home runs and played solid defense at first base. That would suggest Reynolds, who made $7.5 million last season, would make a figure over $8 million, unless the two sides can come to some sort of agreement. If they decide to not tender him a contract by the Nov. 30 deadline, Reynolds -- who would get a $500,000 buyout -- would become a free agent. In a weak year for corner infielders, he could opt to cash in elsewhere.
The Orioles also have a $1 million club option on Ayala, who was signed by Duquette last winter. The 34-year-old right-hander pitched to a 2.64 ERA in 66 games, making it likely his option will be be picked up. He would be due a $100,000 buyout if the club opts to not bring him back.
Areas of need
Second base: Roberts is expected to be ready to go in Spring Training, but he hasn't played a full season since 2009. The Orioles will monitor the market carefully to see if they can find a more reliable solution. Robert Andino, who is arbitration-eligible, mainly served in a platoon with Ryan Flaherty toward the end of the season.
Starting pitching: If the Orioles do sign a starting pitcher, it won't be an ace like Zack Greinke, but more of a veteran like Saunders. The organization will take a long look at top pitching prospects Bundy and Kevin Gausman -- who could be in Baltimore by midseason. The rotation should also be helped by the continued maturation of Chen and Miguel Gonzalez, along with 24-year-old Chris Tillman. Jason Hammel, who Duquette said looks like he will avoid a second right knee surgery, is also expected to be a full go in camp.
First base/outfield: This is obviously tied to what happens with Reynolds -- and things could get interesting. The team doesn't have a set designated hitter yet, and Chris Davis could end up playing first, DH or the outfield. Markakis is expected to be fully healthy for Spring Training, and it's possible the Orioles resign McLouth and/or Thome, as well. There are a lot of moving parts here, and the Orioles aren't expected to make a run at a high-priced free agent like outfielder Josh Hamilton. Duquette will likely try to find value with players -- like he did in 2012 -- who have been cast aside or are below the radar.
The Orioles' Opening Day payroll last season was approximately $81 million, and the club figures to stay in that range for 2013. With Duquette already stating he believes the organization can stay competitive within their current parameters, the O's payroll isn't expected to jump much, if at all, from where it ended in 2012.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.