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Offseason Outlook: Baltimore Orioles

Once the Orioles sort out the uncertainty in their front office, they'll have to improve a disappointing rotation and add balance to their promising lineup.

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The Orioles' next GM has one of the toughest assignments in baseball: pass the up-and-coming Blue Jays, the deep-pocketed Red Sox, the perennially competitive Rays and the powerhouse Yankees. This job will take more than one year.

At this point, it's not clear who will be leading the Orioles' baseball operations department going forward. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail has stepped aside, so Baltimore will search for a new general manager. We do know manager Buck Showalter will remain in the dugout next year.

It will take a skilled general manager with a long-term vision to mold the Orioles into a contender. They are short on pitching and entered the season with the weakest farm system in the division, according to Baseball America. The Rays provide hope, since they have three playoff berths in the past four years despite having a lower payroll than the Orioles and a far worse stadium. Success on a budget is possible in the AL East, but even MacPhail couldn't turn the franchise into a contender.

The Orioles experienced many disappointments in 2011 and the biggest letdown of all occurred in the starting rotation, where young, promising pitchers failed to develop as swiftly as expected. Baltimore finished last in MLB in rotation ERA (5.39), innings (881) and quality starts (60) and they weren't particularly close to the 29th ranked team in any of those categories.

Brian Matusz had a 10.69 ERA in 12 starts; Jake Arrieta struggled, then underwent elbow surgery in August; Chris Tillman's season stats were disappointing; Zach Britton had an up-and-down season. The Orioles need better pitching in 2012 and they're in a difficult position since they can't rely on their young starters, but it's too early to give up on them.

Though Jeremy Guthrie led the league in losses again, he was a steady presence in the rotation. His durability (three consecutive years of 200+ innings) sets him up for a generous arbitration payday of $8MM or more. He's eligible for free agency after 2012 and could be trade bait this winter. If the Orioles part with the durable 32-year-old without getting pitching back, their rotation will look even thinner. Along with Matusz, Arrieta, Tillman, and Britton, pitchers Tommy Hunter and Brad Bergesen are internal candidates to start in 2012.

The Orioles will likely pursue starting pitching in trades and on the free agent market this offseason. Free agent C.J. Wilson would have appeal, though squeezing his salary into the payroll won't necessarily be easy. Assuming the front office brings back Jones, Johnson, Guthrie, Bergesen, Simon and Andino through arbitration, the Orioles will have about $64MM in commitments for 2012 (a figure that doesn't account for minimum salary players). They've worked with payrolls of $74MM and $87MM in the past two seasons, so they figure to have $10-25MM to spend, depending on how much owner Peter Angelos has budgeted.

Wilson isn't the only prominent free agent who could fill a void for the Orioles. Prince Fielder would instantly become the team's best hitter and strengthen an offense that finished seventh in the American League with 708 runs scored. The Orioles would have to commit $100MM to a player for the first time in franchise history and surrender their second-round draft pick in 2012 to obtain Fielder.

Baltimore's first base plan will also affect the future of Mark Reynolds, who may be better off at first or DH than at third. Chris Davis is another free swinger who played both corner infield positions down the stretch and may start in 2012.

Vladimir Guerrero probably won't be back and it seems unlikely that the Orioles will offer arbitration after his so-so season. Luke Scott, another DH option, missed the final two and a half months of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. He's a non-tender candidate, but the Orioles figure to have interest in retaining him on a one-year deal if his recovery goes well. Nolan Reimold has earned consideration in left field, Scott's primary defensive position, after posting a .973 OPS in September. The Orioles will also have to determine how many roster spots they can devote to powerful hitters who strike out a lot and don't play premium positions such as Scott, Davis and Reynolds.

Brian Roberts' injuries make second base difficult to project (Roberts is now recovering from a concussion). Robert Andino filled in admirably in 2011 and he'll be back next year, possibly with 24-year-old Ryan Adams, another candidate to play the position. The Orioles can't be expecting much from Roberts, who has played just 98 games in the past two seasons.

Four position players -- J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters -- form the Orioles' unofficial core, as they're all under control through 2013 or beyond. It won't be surprising if Baltimore explores extensions for Jones and Wieters at some point in the offseason. There figures to be more urgency to lock up Jones, who would be eligible for free agency after 2013.

There's work to be done in the bullpen, where Jim Johnson's standout season helped mask Kevin Gregg's disappointing one. Both are likely back in the bullpen next year, although there has been talk about making Johnson a starter.  Other holdovers include Jason Berken, Chris Jakubauskas, Clay Rapada, Alfredo Simon, Troy Patton, Pedro Strop and non-tender candidates Jo-Jo Reyes, Jeremy Accardo and Willie Eyre

From a statistical standpoint, the Orioles had a below-average bullpen this year, but no manager relied on his relievers more than Showalter, who needed 565 2/3 innings of relief because of the rotation's struggles. An improved rotation would lessen the strain on the bullpen in 2012. The Orioles have spent on relievers in recent years (including some regrettable deals) and it makes sense for them to restore bullpen depth and add relievers this offseason.

For the Orioles to progress, their rotation has to improve significantly. Baltimore figures to be in the market for starters and relievers this offseason as they look to improve upon the disappointment of 2011. They need position players, too, and could shop for help at first base, DH and left field and move the likes of Davis and Reynolds around depending on who they obtain. But offseason acquisitions can only do so much for the Orioles, who need to see their homegrown pitchers evolve from prospects to contributors if they are to start their ascent in the American League East.








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