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2017 MLB Offseason Preview: Baltimore Orioles

A look at what the Orioles will do this winter.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Baltimore Orioles (75-87), 5th in AL East

Notable free agents: Welington Castillo, J.J. Hardy, Jeremy Hellickson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, Chris Tillman, Seth Smith

After finding ways to exceed expectations and sneak into the playoffs in recent years, the Orioles flatlined in 2017, falling to last place in the always difficult AL East due to injuries and awful starting pitching.

Dan Duquette has expressed his intentions to reload his club rather than rebuild it, but with a number of uncertainties lingering over the roster, Duquette may be forced to rethink his plans.

It’s hard to focus on this offseason for the O’s without thinking ahead to next offseason, when franchise cornerstones Zach Britton, Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Brad Brach all hit free agency. Considering the Orioles’ spending habits, or lack thereof, it is hard to imagine Duquette will be able to bring back more than one or two of those marquee players, with Machado being among the most likely to walk out the door.

Anyway, that’s a different problem for a different offseason. Or is it? With the struggles the Orioles faced this season, and the looming explosion of their core after the 2018 season, is it time for Duquette and the Orioles to shop around their top tier talent and commit to a rebuild?

According to Duquette, that’s not the plan. The team’s executive vice president seems set on giving one more go with what he has, while rebuilding a starting rotation that was last in the majors in ERA (5.70). So let’s start there.

The two best arms in the Orioles weak rotation, righties Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, are still under team control for 2018. The rest of the rotation is up in the air. Given the production in the back of the rotation, that is probably not the worst thing.

So, what to do with the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley and Chris Tillman? Miley has a club option for this season, but given his production and the Orioles’ track record, a buyout seems more likely. The team struck out big time when they acquired Jimenez for four years and $50 million, so Duquette may be hesitant to walk into a mistake like that again. Don’t expect the team to throw cash at any of the top tier starters on the free agent market this season, like Yu Darvish or former Oriole Jake Arrieta. Look for Duquette to piece together a new rotation with more affordable starters.

Fortunately for the Orioles and their plans to compete in 2018, there are plenty of solid pieces in place. The team boasts a stellar duo of arms in the back of their bullpen, and the lineup from top to bottom can hit the long ball. Money will have to be spent on arbitration checks for Machado and Jonathan Schoop, but the remainder of the offense appears to be set, and will still be very dangerous.

Duquette appeared to be toying with the idea of trading Britton before the deadline back in July, but nothing ever materialized. So there appears to be a conflict of what exactly the Orioles should do. For now, it seems like they’re trying one more time to get back to the postseason and try to make a run. If that remains the plan, Duquette can dedicate this season to acquiring starting pitching, which is currently the team’s difference between contender and pretender.

Is this the right approach? For just the sake of next season, it could be. However, with the Red Sox expecting to remain a contender and the Yankees way ahead of schedule, a run at the division title seems like a difficult assignment. Is it time for Duquette to think of the bigger picture?

Teams like the Yankees got back to contender status in a hurry by unloading top bullpen arms to reload a thing farm system. Brach and Britton would likely not get the same return that Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller did back in 2016, but these playoffs have further reinforced the importance of a quality bullpen (look at the Dodgers). The Orioles’ farm system is currently among the worst in baseball, so is it time to rebuild and commit to the future?

With Duquette and Buck Showalter entering the final seasons of their contracts, this feels like a pivotal season for the Orioles, and certain decisions can determine the trajectory of the franchise for the next several seasons. Patching up the rotation appears to be the plan. If they are to contend next season, Duquette will likely have to catch lightning in a bottle with middle tier starting pitching acquisitions to keep their power hitting offense in games.

Fortunately for the Orioles, they have over-performed many times before. Can they do it again, or is it time for Plan B?