Duquette dives into first big test at Meetings

Duquette dives into first big test at Meetings

BALTIMORE -- It's impossible to guess what the Orioles' plan will be at next week's Winter Meetings in Dallas under new executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, but it figures to involve heated-up trade talks.

After more than nine years out of baseball, Duquette -- who was introduced on Nov. 8 and still has several decisions to make within his front office -- has a lengthy to-do list in turning around an organization that has struggled for the last decade and a half. He made it no secret that the preference is for the Orioles to stay away from throwing money at big-ticket free agents and, in keeping that in mind, Duquette spent the General Managers Meetings earlier this month reintroducing himself to other clubs and evaluating potential trade partners.

The emphasis, as Duquette said in his introductory news conference, is shoring up the farm system and improving international scouting to help catch up with Baltimore's American League East brethren. But Duquette -- who made his first front-office hire Monday in amateur scouting director Gary Rajsich -- is also faced with the immediate challenge in bettering a squad that finished 69-93 in 2011. It will be even more difficult with virtually no help on the horizon in the Minor Leagues, meaning the organization will be forced to fill most of its holes externally.

So far this winter, the Orioles have signed a few six-year free agents, and added two players from outside the organization to their 40-man roster -- Korean reliever Tae-Hyon Chong (whose signing is still expected to happen but is not official) and infielder Matt Antonelli. But the Orioles have yet to address their biggest concern: the starting rotation.

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That should change soon, and perhaps in Dallas.

The Orioles were unusually active at last year's Meetings, turning a pair of trades that netted them shortstop J.J. Hardy and corner infielder Mark Reynolds under the Andy MacPhail regime.

This winter, Duquette will be tasked with adding pitching and position depth, with the Orioles' starting rotation still largely up for grabs. While internal discussions about moving reliever Jim Johnson to the rotation will largely depend on what they are able to do elsewhere, the Orioles would still like to add another Major League-ready arm or two to help take the pressure off their younger starters --who all regressed or were injured last season -- and Jeremy Guthrie, who is viewed as one of the team's best trade chips.

Guthrie was dangled heavily before the Trade Deadline, although MacPhail -- citing a lack of favorable deals -- chose to hang on to the right-hander, who presumably has more value at the end of the season since more teams are looking for starters.

Baltimore appears to have the flexibility to add some salary, with about $43 million already committed for next season, a figure that will likely be in the low $70 million range after arbitration and the rest of next season's contracts are offered.

There are nine arbitration-eligible players on the current 40-man roster, with Guthrie, Adam Jones and Luke Scott (who could be non-tendered) in line for some substantial raises. The team's payroll was just shy of $87 million in 2011, and even in making some incremental upgrades that number will likely be pushed north of $90 million and beyond. There is money to be spent, but where and how the Orioles use it must be done wisely.

When asked if the team needs a total rebuild, Duquette wasn't in total agreement, but he made it clear that the emphasis will be on stockpiling inventory in the farm system over signing big-name free agents.

"[There are] a lot of talent markets to field a competitive and winning team," Duquette said. "We will be active in several of those markets. The Major League free-agency market is probably the riskiest one, right? I'm much more comfortable operating with less risk."

But that doesn't mean he won't take a risk. Look for the Orioles, who will continue to shore up their front-office hirings with a goal of being done after the Winter Meetings, to test the water and possibly make a trade or two.

If the club acquires a late-inning arm, it could be just enough to put Johnson in the rotation. Similarly, filing their designated-hitter hole with a player who doubles as a first baseman (or third baseman) will have an effect on where Reynolds fits in. The preference is for Reynolds to remain at first, but the Orioles, who also have an unclear second-base status given Brian Roberts' health, showed last season that they still badly need infield depth.

Duquette's first big test starts in Dallas, and the foundation he puts down will go a long ways in determining the rest of the offseason, as well as the organization's future. While it's unlikely they make a big splash, they could make some moves that have a ripple effect on next season and beyond.

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.