BALTIMORE -- What will the Orioles do this offseason?
With a new general manager/president, and manager Buck Showalter set for his second offseason with Baltimore, things could get interesting for an organization trying to get out of the lower tier of the American League East. To do that, the Orioles can't rely solely on their Minor League system, with changes expected in player development and drafting, including the loss of scouting director Joe Jordan.
The Orioles will need to be aggressive in the free-agent market, something for which former president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail -- who excelled in trades -- was often criticized, given the lack of "big names" Baltimore signed. Whether that changes with a new front office remains to be seen, but there are plenty of holes for next year's squad, as well as an alarming lack of depth that came to the forefront this past season, as the Orioles held seemingly never-ending auditions for most of their starting rotation spots.
Who can help? First and foremost, the Orioles need pitching, with several Major League-caliber arms the top priority in helping to stabilize a starting staff that has been hit hard while the current crop of your arms has underperformed, sustained injuries or both. The O's will also have to address the closer situation and decide whether to offer another multiyear contract to a free agent, trust Kevin Gregg to bounce back from a disappointing season or trust reliever Jim Johnson -- who could be moved to the starting rotation -- with the ninth inning.
The good news is that the Orioles have a relatively low payroll and, compared to many teams, aren't saddled with many bloated long-term deals that would hurt them moving forward. Conversely, Baltimore had trouble attracting top free agents long before MacPhail came aboard, and the only thing that can really change that -- other than offering astronomical sums of money to players -- is to establish some hope of winning. Showalter's presence helps, and the expected improvement of some of the O's young players should yield a better record in 2012. How much better, and how much longer until the Orioles decide to go all in, remain to be seen. It's one of the most pressing questions that the club's new front office will face.
Contract issues Free agents: Vladimir Guerrero, DH; Cesar Izturis, IF
Eligible for arbitration: Jo-Jo Reyes, LHP; Brad Bergesen, RHP (could miss Super 2 cutoff); Alfredo Simon, RHP (could miss Super 2 cutoff); Willie Eyre, RHP; Adam Jones, OF; Robert Andino, IF; Johnson, RHP; Jeremy Guthrie, RHP; Luke Scott, OF/DH
Non-tender possibilities: Reyes, Eyre, Scott
Areas of need First base: The annual search for a power-hitting first baseman has become a sore subject among Orioles fans, most of whom are still reeling over the inability to sign Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira a few years ago.
Still, two of baseball's biggest free agents from the class of 2012 are first basemen, and while the O's don't figure to be a factor in the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, they could make a serious play at Prince Fielder, a player Showalter has always admired. Fielder will command a hefty contract, and while it's hard to see a scenario where the Orioles will empty the coffers for the 28-year-old slugger, it's not impossible.
What's Plan B? The Orioles haven't developed a first baseman recently, and if they take an all-or-nothing approach with the Fielder negotiations, current infielder Mark Reynolds could be their next-best bet. Other free-agent names to keep an eye on include Michael Cuddyer and Casey Kotchman.
Starting rotation: Assuming that Guthrie isn't traded, the addition of Tommy Hunter to the Orioles' crop of young arms -- who by and large were a disappointment in 2011 -- still leaves the rotation thin. Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson is the top free-agent starter available, and given Showalter's Texas ties, the Orioles will probably be connected to Wilson at some point, although it would be hard to expect them to land him.
Ideally for the Orioles, adding two Major League-ready starters to help shore up the rotation and take some pressure off Guthrie would go a long way toward stabilizing the staff. Having frontline lefty Brian Matusz bounce back from a disappointing season and right-hander Jake Arrieta healthy should help foster some competition among the rest of the O's young arms, with lefty Zach Britton coming off a solid rookie campaign in 2011.
Bullpen: Gregg and Johnson are expected to return to late-inning roles, although Gregg's closer status is far from certain. The emergence of Pedro Strop has the right-hander projected as part of next year's 'pen with a host of other arms, including Jason Berken, Rick VandenHurk, Reyes, Zach Phillips, Troy Patton and Clay Rapada, who all figure to be present for Spring Training. Like many clubs, the Orioles will also likely sign a wealth of free-agent arms to audition in the spring.
Left field: Another hole for the Orioles for the last few years, there's an uninspiring free-agent class for left fielders. With Luke Scott a potential non-tender, there's still a chance the two sides agree on a lesser deal (which could also slot him as a cheaper DH), and the Felix Pie experiment appears to be over. Nolan Reimold didn't do much with his opportunity in the second half of the season, although the team likes his hustle and power.
Second base: The uncertain health of Brian Roberts, who's recovering from a concussion, has the team in a bind, and it's no sure thing that the O's can lure a free agent to Baltimore, given that unknown. Robert Andino has filled in admirably in Roberts' absence, and while a full-time role for the 27-year-old isn't an ideal scenario, it's not a situation with which the Orioles have much wiggle room. They could sign another veteran middle infielder or give rookie Ryan Adams a chance, but everything depends on the availability of Roberts.
With an Opening Day payroll just shy of $87 million in 2011, the Orioles spent more than they originally expected to due to the late signing of Guerrero. Still, it has become clear that Baltimore will open the checkbook if the time is right, and it is once again expected to be flexible in 2012.
The Orioles have approximately $43.4 million in payroll tied up for next season, although several arbitration-eligible players -- Guthrie and Jones, in particular -- will command substantial raises to push that sum further. Of their committed 2012 money, about half is accounted for in the combined salaries of outfielder Nick Markakis and Roberts, although Roberts' status for next spring is still largely unknown.