It’s early yet, but so far this offseason, the Baltimore Orioles sure are acting like a team that just went 96-66 and won the American League East by a dozen games. You’d expect a team like that to play it cool, and that’s what the Orioles are doing.

The longer they keep it up, however, the more likely they’ll regret it. Rather than playing it cool, what general manager Dan Duquette should be doing is playing keep-up.

Yeah, I know. Part of me is aware that there’s an element of pointlessness involved in wagging one’s finger at the Orioles these days. If they’re doing something that doesn’t seem to make sense, it oftentimes ends up making sense.

And yeah, I’m also aware it might sound like I’m preaching to the choir. After all, it was just last month that Duquette assured Baltimore fans the club isn’t about to get cheap on them after riding a franchise-record payroll to a dominant 2014 season.

“The important thing for our fans to know is that we’ve increased our payroll over the last couple years,” Duquette told Eduardo A. Encina of The Baltimore Sun. “I expect that we’ll be able to increase our payroll because the fans have responded to our team the last couple of years.”

On the surface, this is a solid promise. You can’t increase payroll without making moves, right? 

In most cases, yes. But in the case of the Orioles? Not necessarily.

Earlier this month, MLB Trade Rumors released its spending projections for 2015 based on committed dollars and projected arbitration payouts. Since the Orioles were projected for nearly $109 million, they could do nothing the rest of the offseason and still top last year’s $107.5 million Opening Day payroll.

Here’s hoping that’s not their plan. Because the way things are looking in Baltimore and elsewhere in the AL East, doing nothing isn’t going to cut it.

When the Orioles look around the AL East, it’s not all bad.

The Tampa Bay Rays are a fading power, as they’ve lost their ace, their general manager and their manager within a span of a couple months. The New York Yankees, meanwhile, are an old and feeble team that might be serious about avoiding the top names on the free-agent market.

The Toronto Blue Jays clearly mean business, though. They just gave Russell Martin an $82 million contract, thereby giving their already dangerous lineup another quality bat and their pitching staff one of the game’s best pitch-framers.

Then there’s the Boston Red Sox, who have made a promising lineup into a lethal lineup with the additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. They still need a lot of starting pitching, but they have more than enough money and trade assets for the task.

Knowing that the Blue Jays just finished 14 games back in the AL East and that the Red Sox finished a staggering 56 games back, it may be tempting to downplay them as threats to the Orioles.

But as things stand now, they are. While they’ve been busy upgrading, the Orioles have been busy staring a couple of serious downgrades in the face.

If the Orioles lose lefty reliever Andrew Miller to free agency, they’ll be losing a guy whose 1.35 ERA in 23 appearances following a July trade really allowed their bullpen to take off. 

If the Orioles lose right fielder Nick Markakis to free agency, they’ll be losing a guy who posted a solid .339 OBP out of the leadoff spot while playing characteristically solid defense in right field.

If the Orioles lose Nelson Cruz, they’ll be losing a guy who provided the middle of their lineup with an .859 OPS and 40 dingers, the most of anybody in the majors.

As of now, there’s a chance the Orioles will lose all three. Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun says they aren’t even negotiating with Miller. Markakis and Cruz still seem to be in play, but Jon Meoli of The Baltimore Sun has a point in thinking Boston’s recent splurges could make re-signing them difficult:

Cruz was in Baltimore on a one-year deal in 2014, while the team paid a $2 million buyout to Markakis but still hope to re-sign him this offseason.

They might have more company in that category now. Teams who don’t want to pay an ace’s ransom to Boston for someone like [Yoenis] Cespedes can surrender a draft pick and sign Cruz, or sign Markakis at no amateur cost.

Could the Orioles withstand the losses of their three big free agents and still be a quality team?

Possibly, but probably not. Some parts of the whole—most notably center fielder Adam Jones and shortstop J.J. Hardy—would be fine, but the Orioles would be rolling the dice elsewhere.

Third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters will both be coming off serious injuries in 2015. First baseman Chris Davis will be coming off both a suspension and a major regression, while righty-swinging utility man Steve Pearce will be a candidate for a major regression.

As for the Orioles bullpen, that it was already pretty good before Miller arrived means it might be able to survive his loss without too much of a fuss. But it could have to make do with less help from Baltimore’s starting rotation.

There’s one measure that suggests the Orioles rotation’s 2014 ERA was half a run lower than it should have been, making it easily the top regression candidate among AL starting rotations:

So far, the moves Duquette has made this winter have merely augmented the Orioles’ organizational depth. In light of the movement around them in the AL East and the combination of holes and question marks on the big club’s roster, Duquette could go a long way toward bolstering Baltimore’s status as the top dog in the AL East by having loftier aspirations for his offseason dealings.

One solution would be to bite a couple of big bullets and re-sign both Cruz and Markakis, thereby keeping intact one of the game’s top offenses from 2014. Then, Duquette could find a couple of bargain buys for his bullpen and rotation or perhaps a swingman who could help in both departments.

Or Duquette could go really big. Rather than simply keeping the band together and searching for bargain buys, he could cast a wide net and look to solve all the team’s needs with big-ticket acquisitions.

Rather than re-sign Cruz, for example, Duquette could get involved in the trade market for right-handed power bats. Between Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Yoenis Cespedes and, now that the Arizona Diamondbacks have Yasmany Tomas, possibly Mark Trumbo, there are quite a few to choose from.

For right field, an alternative to Markakis could be Nori Aoki, who could offer a contact habit and defense just as strong as Markakis‘ for potentially less money. Or Duquette could call the Los Angeles Dodgers and try to interest them in a swap of Andre Ethier’s bad contract for Ubaldo Jimenez’s bad contract. 

For Baltimore’s rotation, Brandon McCarthy and Jason Hammel are among the value buys available. Or playing off a report from Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Orioles could test how interested the Marlins are in Chris Davis by demanding one of their talented young hurlers.

All of this encompasses an approach that’s essentially the polar opposite of the approach Duquette is currently taking to the offseason. And while it’s on your mind, yes, the main argument against the idea is that it would require the Orioles to spend quite a bit of money.

But if ever there was a time for them to do so, it’s now.

There’s more to it than just the competitive reasons we’ve already discussed. The Orioles just drew over 30,000 people per game at Orioles Park at Camden Yards, their best attendance showing in a decade. That’s one solid revenue base, with another being MLB’s still-new national TV money.

And if you’re worried about the Orioles getting themselves locked in a long-term mess, don’t. As Cot’s Baseball Contracts shows, they’re only on the hook for a couple of long-term contracts and only one of them (Adam Jones) is guaranteed past 2017.

What the Orioles have built in recent years is something special. But right now, there are cracks in the foundation and the wolves are at the door. To keep the whole thing standing will require a major effort.

If the Orioles want their return to the top of the AL East to last, it’s an effort they’ll realize is worth making.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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