Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Baltimore Orioles.
2013 record: 85-77
Finish: T-third place, AL East
2013 final payroll: $103.3 million (14th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $82 million (23rd of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 21st
Orioles in six words: Peter Angelos rearing his ugly head
The 2012 Baltimore Orioles, with their impossible record in one-run games, an endlessly turned-over roster handled brilliantly by general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, and a lockdown bullpen that covered up other deficiencies, were supposed to be the start of something new in the Charm City.
The 2013 Baltimore Orioles, who regressed as expected in those one-run games, actually used the exact same number of players as in 2012 (but with far less fanfare) and featured a middle-of-the-road relief corps, reminded the world that trajectory in the American League East is not always linear and takes year-in, year-out supplementing.
[Also: No. 22 Padres: A club with the potential to surprise ]
Life amid the Bostons and New Yorks and Tampa Bays of the baseball world demands constant action and evolution, and as the Orioles are learning, a great core alone does not guarantee continued glory. Though such a nucleus remains, the Orioles' refusal to come even close to matching their payroll of last season – especially with the influx of cash from a new national TV deal and Camden Yards attendance jumping to its highest point in eight seasons – leaves them vulnerable to an even greater drop-off than last year.
Needs exist for the Orioles, and their cornucopia of itsy-bitsy maneuvers have only inched them in the right direction. Signing Ryan Webb to a two-year deal to shore up their bullpen? Smart. Taking a flier with a 40-man roster spot on Francisco Peguero? Sure. Dealing backup infielder Danny Valencia for backup outfielder David Lough? OK. It's like rubbing Neosporin on a cut, only the Orioles don't have a cut – theirs is a gash that needs stitches.
A number of impactful starting pitchers remain free agents, including Matt Garza, who comes without draft-pick compensation. And yet Baltimore seems compelled to walk into the season with legitimate rotation questions. Kevin Gausman could be the fifth starter, alongside Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris and Wei-Yin Chen, as could Zach Britton, though adding a free agent would show a sense of exigency that decidedly was not there when Baltimore passed on Nelson Cruz to sign Delmon Young to a minor league deal.
It's that lack of urgency, especially from owner Peter Angelos, that makes the Orioles' offseason so frustrating. Trading Jim Johnson to Oakland made sense in a vacuum; a $10 million closer is a luxury. Oakland's approach, though, is that now is its time to win, and when you want to win, you treat yourself to luxuries. Angelos put the kibosh on Johnson's replacement, scuttling an agreed-upon deal for Grant Balfour because of nebulous health concerns and showing once again why so many around the league cast aspersions on Baltimore ownership.
If the Orioles are lucky, two years of success remain before a massive franchise overhaul. They have only two players under contract beyond this season: Webb and center fielder Adam Jones, who's the lone player signed beyond 2015. And while that is a good deal – slightly under market for a personable All-Star at one of the most important positions on the field – it serves as a reminder for the players Baltimore didn't sign.
Six major pieces from these Orioles are due to hit free agency after the 2015 season: home run champ Chris Davis, linchpin catcher Matt Wieters, potential closers Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter, and Chen and Norris, two mid-rotation starters. It's the first two, really, whose situation should frighten Baltimore. Scott Boras represents Davis and Wieters, and the next Boras client to sign a contract extension that close to free agency might be the first.
While shedding Nick Markakis' contract next offseason will help free the sort of money necessary to lock either up, it may not be enough, which would be a shame. There might not be a better trio of everyday-player teammates than Davis, Jones and Manny Machado. Add in Wieters, J.J. Hardy (a free agent after this season) and Markakis, and the Orioles should be doing everything they can to strengthen a weakness at second base and DH, not plug the spots on the cheap.
Gausman could be special with time, and the Orioles may get Dylan Bundy back from Tommy John surgery midseason, though he'll probably need a bit of minor league seasoning first. They can count on Tillman, whose success over the last two seasons nauseates Seattle even more seeing as they surrendered him and Jones for 255 innings of Erik Bedard. Beyond him, their starting pitching lacks firepower, with mid- and back-of-rotation guys in a division that snacks on those.
After a great season and one of reasonable success, the Orioles' step backward is one completely of their own volition. They could be up there with the Red Sox and Yankees and Rays. They've got arguably the best tactical manager in the game, payroll flexibility and a short window with the sort of core that necessitates action.
Time remains for Angelos to do so. Just don't count on it.
When Manny Machado was carted off the field with what looked like a knee shredded by a Robot Coupe, a sense of doom came over Baltimore. Like, why can't we have nice things? Though much of the fear was for naught – Machado did not tear his ACL but a ligament with a far shorter recovery time – it underscored just what Machado means to the Orioles. It's not just his glove at third base, which may be the best in the big leagues. It's his bat, and its growth, that could thrust the Orioles' offense stratospheric. Machado knows to be a complete offensive player he needs to walk more. Baltimore already has a swing machine in Jones, and it doesn't need two. So he'll focus on plate discipline, on generating the incredible backspin that leaves teammates awed and on being back by opening day to help a team that didn't help itself enough.
Davis and Wieters
Both Boras clients, both free
Agents soon. Oy vey