Manager Buck Showalter and Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette had barely finished collecting the accolades and hardware awarded to them for the brilliant 2014 Orioles season before they were under fire from Baltimore’s weary baseball fans.
The charge: failing to retain, or adequately replace, three key pieces to the joyous postseason run this past October—outfielder/designated hitter Nelson Cruz, shutdown reliever Andrew Miller, and right fielder Nick Markakis.
With the first two, it’s mostly a matter of finding ways to fill in the offensive and pitching holes left behind. But losing Markakis, a career Oriole who broke in with the club as a 22-year-old rookie in 2006, was like having your heart ripped out, even if his declining production and health risks made the decision easier on the head.
Meanwhile, American League East foes the Boston Red Sox have bolstered their lineup by signing Hanley Ramírez and Pablo Sandoval and overhauled their starting pitching by acquiring Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Justin Masterson. Yes, the Sox sucked last year, but keep in mind they were a year removed from winning the World Series. They still have a ton of talent and these new additions should make them more formidable.
An opponent much closer to the Orioles in the standings last year, the Toronto Blue Jays, has also made some solid additions, signing catcher Russell Martin and acquiring outfielder Michael Saunders and third baseman Josh Donaldson. Those moves could have them nipping at Baltimore’s heels.
And in a pre-winter meetings almost-coup that had many Orioles fans wondering if the world was crashing down around them, the Jays reportedly flirted with luring away Duquette to be their team president—a job, according to several journalists, the Birdland mastermind was willing to take.
Though fans were able to collect their breath when the current president in Toronto, Paul Beeston, announced his intentions to stay for another year, they soon emptied their lungs to shout about Duquette and the front office sitting on their hands during hot stove season. We were so close to winning it all last year! A few more pieces and we could get there. Instead, there are three gaping holes and more questions than answers. To this point, the Orioles have only gotten three new bullpen arms, two coming from other teams’ minor league squads via the Rule 5 draft, and claimed a backup catcher off waivers.
Aside from Duquette’s decision to stay put, the most positive development this offseason has been the news that slugging first baseman Chris Davis got a medical exemption for Adderall, a substance he said led to a failed performance-enhancing drug test that earned him a suspension just before the playoffs.
For his part, Duquette has preached patience.
“The fans should follow what we’ve done over the past couple of years to field a competitive team,” he said at the winter meetings, as reported by The Sun’s Eduardo A. Encina on Dec. 11. “They’ve got to look at the core of our team returning from the 2014 team. And the heart of the team is the pitching staff, and we’re returning our pitching staff minus one, and we’re going to look to replace that.
“So, you’ve got to look at the core and build off the core. We’re in a good position. We’ve got a couple of good options to look at.”
In truth, he’s earned as much. His tactical brilliance in finding undervalued parts and stuffing the minors with depth is the underpinning to the winning formula, centered around the core of star players, Baltimore has to thank for the past three years.
But there is still a very real, and justified, sense of doom as the calendar turns and spring training draws closer. We still don’t know who is flanking Adam Jones in the outfield (presumably Steve Pearce is in one of those spots). We still don’t know who will give us the insanely good innings Miller did. We still don’t know where Cruz’s 40 home runs and 108 RBIs will come from as the lineup is currently assembled.
And something else Duquette is on the record about only adds to this dread.
“We’re not about signing high-profile free agents,” he said, according to a Dec. 10 blog post on MASN by Roch Kubatko. “We’re about bringing good players through the farm system, we’re about making trades, we’re about being active in the Rule 5 drafts, signing international players. That’s who we are.”
Davis and catcher Matt Wieters are in the last year of their contracts, and they will almost certainly command the kind of money a “high-profile free agent” typically gets, which is to say there’s a good chance they’re gone.
The best shot at winning a World Series is this upcoming season, and the window gets slammed shut after this year if Davis and Wieters walk. Instead of moving forward and seizing that moment, the Orioles, it seems, might be moving backward.