11/26/12 9:31 PM ET
O's order of business: add bat at Winter Meetings
By Brittany Ghiroli / MLB.com
And while Baltimore isn't expected to be in play for any big-name free agents, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette will head to next week's Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., still looking to upgrade several spots and fill the team's largest need: a middle-of-the-order bat.
Duquette -- who joined the Orioles just over a year ago -- has had time to assess the organization's system this offseason and has made it no secret that the top priority is adding a bat, whether that comes from left field, first base or designated hitter. All three of those positions remain in flux and tied -- in varying degrees -- to the decision around first baseman Mark Reynolds.
The Orioles have until Friday to offer a contract to Reynolds, who is arbitration-eligible. If they don't, Reynolds will be free to sign anywhere. Reynolds resides in Arizona during the offseason and living at home during Spring Training could factor in his decision to sign elsewhere if he does land on the open market, which is pretty thin at first base.
If the O's allow Reynolds to become a free agent, it would be hard to imagine a scenario where he would re-sign with Baltimore, although not impossible. The organization is in talks with its other free agents -- outfielder Nate McLouth and left-handed pitcher Joe Saunders -- although nothing is imminent on either front.
While Reynolds stands to make the most money if offered arbitration -- with a figure projected around $9 million -- the Orioles have more than a dozen arbitration-eligible players, which will push the payroll to the mid-$80 million range. That doesn't leave Duquette much wiggle room to add from the free-agent market.
So, what will the Orioles do? Duquette has been in talks with potential trade partners and will continue to seek out the kind of under-the-radar signings that give Baltimore the chance to compete with its richer rivals. Toronto's big spending this winter won't push the Orioles to go above their means, with manager Buck Showalter quipping that the club can continue to "be the Little Engine that Could" in the American League East.
Duquette has made it a priority to help build up the Minor League system and improve international scouting, and the organization will continue to funnel resources in that direction as it expands into Europe. Last year's directive to add depth to the pitching staff puts Baltimore in a far better spot than it was in a year ago, with top pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman both believed to not be far off from the Major Leagues.
The Orioles are in more of a position to make some trades, opening up the possibility to add an impact bat such as Kansas City's Billy Butler or Minnesota's Josh Willingham.
The O's have already completed one trade this winter, sending middle infielder Robert Andino to Seattle in exchange for outfielder Trayvon Robinson -- a move that Duquette said "swapped surplus for surplus," providing depth in left field beyond Nolan Reimold, who is returning from season-ending neck surgery.
Even if the market price drops for the likes of outfielder Josh Hamilton and pitcher Zack Greinke -- considered the top two available free agents -- it's unclear how much, if at all, the Orioles would be in the running. The organization isn't interested in Nick Swisher and, beyond resigning McLouth and Saunders, the Orioles haven't been linked with many free agents this offseason, although things are due to heat up next week in Nashville.
What is clear when it comes to the Orioles is that they plan on relying heavily on the young core that is in the fold, with the hope that the team can build on the success experienced throughout the 2012 season.
Baltimore ended a stretch of 14 consecutive losing seasons with a playoff berth and trip to the American League Division Series this season, and while Duquette and Showalter have made it clear that they aren't relying on some of the exceptional performances and streaks that helped that run, there is reason to believe that most of their young players are still improving and several disappointing performers can bounce back in 2013.
The emergence of Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter in the bullpen gives the Orioles a wealth of relief options and potential trade bait, along with young starters Chris Tillman, Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta, all three of whom drew various degrees of interest at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
The Orioles hope to have a healthy Jason Hammel, who was bothered with right knee issues the second half of the season, and outfielder Nick Markakis, which will help stabilize the rotation and lineup. Rookie pitchers Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen are both under team control and figure to be in the Opening Day rotation.
If the team doesn't retain Reynolds, Chris Davis could shift to first base if the Orioles don't find another external option. Davis served multiple roles last year, including DH and outfield, and his role depends on who else is brought in, given his versatility.
Showalter has always preferred a flexible DH to rotate around, but it's not absolutely necessary. The Orioles, one of baseball's worst clubs in terms of stolen bases, are also placing added emphasis on speed this winter by trading for Robinson and claiming Alexi Casilla off waivers.
Duquette is a huge proponent of on-base percentage and will try to upgrade that, as well.
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.