BALTIMORE -- Where do the Orioles go from here?
The organization, fresh off its 14th consecutive losing season, finds itself -- in most respects -- further behind in performance and player development than anyone could have predicted several years ago. And while the task to compete in the American League East isn't going to get any easier, Baltimore will likely move forward into 2012 with some new personnel, both on and off the field.
With the expected departure of president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who almost certainly will not seek a contract renewal, could come a ripple effect in the front office. Manager Buck Showalter is signed through the 2013 season, and the notoriously detailed skipper could have a say in MacPhail's successor, especially given that Showalter has a strong working relationship with principal owner Peter Angelos.
Whoever takes over for MacPhail will have no shortage of work. The Orioles have a lot of roster flexibility, and given the regression of several key young players, they should be incredibly active this winter in trying to attract top-tier talent, an area in which they've struggled during past offseasons.
Baltimore has approximately $43.4 million in payroll tied up for next year, and several arbitration-eligible players -- Jeremy Guthrie, Adam Jones and Luke Scott, in particular -- will command substantial salaries to push that sum higher. While Scott, who had season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, is a non-tender candidate, the Orioles will probably dangle Guthrie again as a potential trade chip. Of their committed 2012 money, about half is in the combined salaries of outfielder Nick Markakis and second baseman Brian Roberts, although Roberts' status for next spring is still largely unknown after suffering a concussion this season.
The O's can't count on Roberts, who has been limited in each of the last two seasons, but acquiring a high-caliber free-agent second baseman is unlikely with his presence looming should he stay healthy. However, there are plenty other attainable items on the O's shopping list this offseason, as the organization looks to add talent to surround their younger, still-progressing players, and enough depth to have a contingency plan and avoid 2011's revolving-roster crunch.
Below is a position-by-position early breakdown of where things stand for the Orioles heading into next spring.
First base: It's a sore subject among Orioles fans, most of whom are still grieving the inability to sign first baseman Mark Teixeira before the 2009 season. Finding a power-hitting first baseman has been on the to-do list every year.
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, early whispers indicate that they could make a serious play at Prince Fielder, a player Showalter has always admired. Fielder will command hefty money, but makes more sense than the Orioles emptying the tank for Pujols, because Fielder's younger. So, what's Plan B? The Orioles haven't develop a first baseman from within their system, and assuming they go with an all-or-nothing approach in the Fielder sweepstakes, infielder Mark Reynolds could be their next best bet. Other free agents to keep an eye on include Michael Cuddyer and Casey Kotchman.
Second base: Roberts' uncertain health has the team in a bind, and it's not likely they can lure a free agent to Baltimore given that unknown. Robert Andino has filled in admirably in Roberts' absence, and while it's not an ideal scenario, it's not a situation in which the Orioles have much wiggle room. They could sign another veteran middle infielder, or let rookie Ryan Adams try to give it a go, but everything depends on the availability of Roberts.
Shortstop: The O's have this spot on lockdown, thanks to J.J. Hardy, who is coming off an excellent 2011 campaign. MacPhail, who orchestrated the Hardy trade with the Twins last winter, signed the infielder to a three-year extension in July. Barring injury, Baltimore is secure at shortstop for some time, with top prospect Manny Machado also waiting in the wings.
Third base: To some degree, what the Orioles do at third depends on what they do at first, although the preference is that Reynolds, who was moved from third to first after the trading of Derrek Lee, won't be at the hot corner after showing to be error-prone.
It's still too early to tell if Chris Davis, acquired from the Rangers in a Trade Deadline deal, could be a potential solution, and to further complicate things it's a thin free-agent crop. If the team makes a splash at first base, they could opt for Davis' glove and shift Reynolds to designated hitter. Like first base, there's no internal solution on the horizon in the Minor League system.
Left field: Another hole for the Orioles for the last few years, there's a similarly uninspiring free-agent class for left fielders. With 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.
Right field: Markakis has this spot secured for the next few seasons, and the quiet outfielder is one of the game's best defensive right fielders every year.
Center field: Jones -- like Markakis -- provides a young, above-average defender, and gives the Orioles some piece of mind at this position.
Designated hitter: While Vladimir Guerrero has stated he wants to play for another year or two, don't expect it to be in Baltimore. That leaves the O's looking for another DH-type, although Scott and Reynolds could both fit this role depending on how things shake out.
Catcher: Matt Wieters continued to establish himself as one of the game's best defensive backstops, and the 25-year-old also had a career year offensively. The Orioles have holes, but this isn't one of them.
Starting rotation: Assuming Guthrie isn't traded, the addition of Tommy Hunter and the O's young crop of arms -- who by and large were a disappointment in 2011 -- leave the rotation alarmingly thin. Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson is the top free-agent starter, and given Showalter's Texas ties, expect Baltimore to make a serious run. Ideally, adding two Major League-ready starters to help shore up the rotation, and taking some of the pressure off Guthrie, would be the best-case scenario. Having front-line 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 rookie lefty Zach Britton also in the mix.
Bullpen: Kevin Gregg and Jim Johnson, who could be stretched out as a starter, will return to work the later innings, 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: Jason Berken, Rick VandenHurk, Jo-Jo Reyes, Zach Phillips, Troy Patton and Clay Rapada all figure to be in next year's camp. Like all clubs, the Orioles will sign a wealth of free-agent arms to audition this spring.
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.