February 5, 2014
Orioles spring training opens next week, and I for one would not want to hear Chuck Thompson's assessment of the beer temperature in Baltimore. Baseball's offseason is known as the Hot Stove League, but for Baltimore fans it's been more of a hot mess. The Orioles came into this offseason fresh from their second-straight winning season and a few blown saves away from their second-straight playoff appearance, so you can understand why fans of the orange-and-black were hoping the front office would be stoking the fires, but instead the Birds' stove has been so cold my Boh has boiled.
It is seriously hard to get excited for the season when the most interesting move the club has made was backing out of a botched bullpen signing. Let me break it down: In Matt Wieters, the Orioles have one of the best catchers in baseball; center fielder Adam Jones and first baseman Chris Davis are two of the brightest young stars in the league and combined for more home runs and RBI than any other duo in the bigs; 21-year-old third baseman Manny Machado is a force of nature who has people thinking about the second coming of Brooks Robinson; shortstop J.J. Hardy is a Gold Glover plus bat; and right fielder Nick Markakis is solid. The bullpen came back to earth last season, but it's still a good unit. Of course, the Birds traded closer Jim Johnson, fresh off back-to-back 50-save seasons-though he also blew another nine in 2013-to the A's for a bag of balls, a half-filled Subway Club Card, and once-coveted second baseman Jemile Weeks. The top of the starting rotation is 16-game winner Chris Tillman, who would make a fantastic number three starter and a serviceable number two, but he's hardly an ace. After that, it's a grab bag. All in all, the lineup is very solid if not deep, but after the free agent losses of Brian Roberts and Nate McLouth, they need a slick fielding veteran at second base to shore up the infield, a left fielder who can set the table, a big bat or two to DH, a closer, and-most glaringly-a top-of-the-rotation starter.
So everyone in Baltimore knows where the Birds need to spend money. The payroll is sitting at just over $85 million, 24th in the league, just ahead of the low-rent Rays and a staggering $177 million behind the Yankees, who, not surprisingly, went on a spending spree this offseason. Between the O's sweetheart MASN deal, giving them a share of the Nationals' TV money, and butts back in the bleachers of Camden Yards, thanks to the return of winning baseball, the Birds have money to spend. Let me rephrase that: The Birds have money they need to spend. Just down 95, the Nationals, who are kicking all that MASN money up to Angelos, have the 10th highest payroll in baseball and are outspending the O's by $28 million. Worse, Wieters and Davis, who represent half of the Orioles' core along with Jones and Machado, are both going to be free agents in two years, and they share Scott Boras as their agent. If you're not familiar, Boras is not a hometown-discount kind of guy, and he and the O's don't have a good track record of getting things done. The odds are the Orioles are going to lose one of them, possibly to a division foe, and it will surprise no one if both Birds fly the nest in free agency. The team has a very narrow window to win 2014 and 2015. Now is the time they need to spend money. And what have they done?
Well, they went out and made a deal with the A's' Grant Balfour, then found something in his medical report not to like, got cold feet, and canceled the deal-and again, that's been the highlight of their offseason. That move was yet another in a long history of dubious decisions by the O's front office that not only disappoint the fans, they make the Orioles a less-than-ideal negotiating partner for free agents. Think about it. If your livelihood was on the line, would you want to hitch your wagon to a star that might cut the line and tell all the other stars you're a broken wagon? You would have to be a very desperate wagon. More of a cart, really. As far as actual moves go, they've picked up a few minor-leaguers, added to their bullpen, but still no closer and definitely no ace.
Orioles Executive Vice President Dan Duquette insists the club has money to spend and that he expects the payroll to be close to $100 million by the time the season rolls around. We'll see. There are still a few free agents that might look good in orange. Starters A.J. Burnett and Bronson Arroyo will both be 37 when the season starts, so they won't require long contracts, but they look like 12- to 14-game winners at best-not the ace this squad needs. Power-hitting left fielder Nelson Cruz's name keeps coming up in Orioles rumors, and I'd love to see him here, but signing him would require the club to forfeit a first-round pick, and they seem unwilling to do it. I'm crossing my fingers they'll bring in Korean hurler Suk-min Yoon, but that would be far too interesting and way too risky for these Orioles.
I have no doubt that the Orioles are going to make some moves, maybe by the time you read this article. They'll bring in some new blood by the end of spring training, but the free agent pile has been pretty well picked over and the Birds don't want to trade the young arms they'd need to part with to make a real splash. For fans who have waited so long to see their beloved Birds have a shot in the AL East, this inaction has been like standing on the deck of the Titanic and watching the last lifeboat sink. Their winning window is starting to look less like an opportunity and more like something to be defenestrated out of. Here's hoping the Orioles find a late spark for that stove, but I'm expecting warm beer in Birdland.
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