BALTIMORE -- Heading into the final season under Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail's current contract, and the first full one with manager Buck Showalter at the helm, this offseason will be critical in determining Baltimore's progress as an organization.

The Orioles are coming off their 13th consecutive losing season, but closed out the year with an impressive two-month stretch under Showalter, who inherited a roster with significant contractual flexibility and seven pending free agents.

Of the seven -- Ty Wigginton, Koji Uehara, Cesar Izturis, Corey Patterson, Julio Lugo, Mark Hendrickson and Kevin Millwood -- none were re-signed during the five-day exclusivity window following the World Series and each became free to negotiate with any club when the free-agent season hit full swing on Sunday.

Wigginton and Izturis remain the most likely to return, although much of that depends on how the team lands its biggest need: a power bat.

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MacPhail has made it clear that the top item on the O's shopping list is a middle-of-the-lineup presence -- the price and player to be determined by the free-agent market. The thought is a true cleanup hitter will do what gambling on Garrett Atkins -- who was released due to poor performance -- did not: improve the guys around him. Players like Nick Markakis, Luke Scott, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are all young and under team control, and adding a menacing bat -- through a trade or free agency -- will help aid an offense that spent the first half of the season ranked last in the Majors in several offensive categories.

Other areas need to be addressed, namely adding another starter to the mix. The O's have done a good job stockpiling young arms under MacPhail, and encouraging end-of-season performances from Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen and Jake Arrieta make the 2011 rotation more competitive than in recent seasons. Still, the O's could use a veteran to complement Jeremy Guthrie, who has posted consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings, and must account for the growing pains that plagued their young starters this year. Last year, they did that via trade, sending reliever Chris Ray to Texas to obtain Millwood. MacPhail could pull a similar move this winter.

Still, the Orioles' most attractive trade chip is their young pitching, and trading some of it away as part of a package isn't out of the question as MacPhail has said that no one is untouchable. If an up-and-down 2010 showed anything, it is how quickly that depth can come into play by underperformance, perhaps placing extra emphasis on Baltimore getting an innings-eater type who can help Guthrie shoulder tough top-of-the-rotation matchups.

In obtaining a premier power bat, the caveat of course is the price. The Orioles do appear to be in a position to spend money, with a total of $28.7 million committed to four players in 2011.

To fill holes on the Major League roster, the Orioles would be wise to sign a wealth of veterans and castaways to Minor League deals with invitations to Spring Training. Their Minor League system has produced most of their current roster and there is a considerable lack of depth at the higher levels.

CONTRACT ISSUES

Free agents: Ty Wigginton, INF; Koji Uehara, RHP; Cesar Izturis, SS; Corey Patterson, OF; Mark Hendrickson, LHP; Julio Lugo, INF; Kevin Millwood, RHP.

Eligible for arbitration: Jeremy Guthrie, RHP; Luke Scott, DH; Adam Jones, OF; Felix Pie, OF; Matt Albers, RHP.

Non-tender possibilities: Matt Albers, RHP.

AREAS OF NEED

Corner Infielder: If the O's get a power bat for third or first base, it will also impact what they do about retaining Wigginton, given that rookie third baseman Josh Bell -- and first-base prospect Brandon Snyder -- don't figure to be Major League-ready by next spring. The health of Brian Roberts -- who missed 3 1/2 months with a herniated disc in his lower back -- means the team will take a closer look at retaining Wigginton, although Robert Andino impressed Showalter in a small sample size and could fit the utility role. There are upgrades to be made, but many different avenues in which to do it.

Shortstop: Baltimore needs to decide if it can afford to retain defensive-minded Cesar Izturis, as the well-liked shortstop leaves much to be desired offensively. Showalter has raved about Izturis' glove and if the O's get a big bopper and keep a guy like Wigginton -- who put up impressive power numbers -- it could be enough to overlook Izturis' bat. If they don't, they will have to look externally, as the Minors are bare in regard to shortstop help. The O's did ink third-overall pick Manny Machado to the second-largest signing bonus in franchise history in June -- and the 18-year-old is already the top infield prospect -- but he won't be ready for the bigs next season.

Starter: Adding a veteran pitcher would help reduce the load on Guthrie and foster competition between the young arms. The O's aren't in the business of giving jobs away anymore and they can't bank on all of their rookies exceeding expectations. They need a dependable arm, much like Millwood was early in the 2010 season. And another veteran presence among a largely inexperienced group never hurts.

2011 PAYROLL

Most of the aforementioned $28.7 million already tied up for next season will go to Roberts ($10 million) and Markakis ($10.6 million) with Michael Gonzalez guaranteed $6 million as part of his two-year deal and Matusz due to receive $1.4 million. The rest is a buyout of Atkins' and Mark Hendrickson's options. The Orioles like to keep approximate spending figures close to the vest, but the amount of money coming off the books and increased television viewership in Showalter's brief time would appear to put them in a favorable spot financially. Yes, they can't compete dollar-for-dollar with baseball's high-rolling Yankee and Red Sox squads, but in comparison to the small-market successes of Texas and Tampa Bay, the Orioles can spend. Whether they will spend wisely remains to be seen.