Since the Orioles are not one of those teams willing to throw caution and good business sense to the wind and spend freely in the free-agent market, every offseason seems to present the same dilemma and create the same kind of speculation.
They need at least one more solid starting pitcher, so which fan favorite or top prospect are they going to trade to upgrade the rotation and put them in better position to compete against the beasts of the American League East?
Obviously, it's a lot simpler in New York or Boston, though even the division's big revenue machines seem to be showing more economic prudence these days. Those teams still are going to spend what it takes to get that key free agent because their markets demand it.
The Orioles, meanwhile, once again find themselves in an internal tug-of-war, trying to find a way to improve their outlook without seriously increasing a budget that — it certainly appears — ownership can now afford to increase. That's why most of the trade speculation that has bubbled up during the early weeks of this offseason has the Orioles filling one hole by digging another.
Why, for instance, does anyone think that it would make sense for the club to trade J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters simply because they can become free agents a year or two down the road? The major reason the Orioles are finally a competitive team in one of baseball's most competitive divisions is because they have built a historically elite defense, so it would border on madness to deal away half of the game's best up-the-middle alignment ahead of a season in which the O's believe they have a chance to be a serious playoff contender.
If that were to happen, it would simply confirm that Peter Angelos and his front office have no ambition beyond fielding a reasonably attractive team, competing until early September and increasing their local revenue streams. The club's recent history allows for such cynicism, but it should be well apparent to all at this point that the sharp upturn in attendance and MASN ratings will only continue if the franchise works hard to keep hope alive at Camden Yards.
Whether that means ownership will allow — or insist upon — a significant payroll increase to add a couple of key free agents and hold the nucleus of the team together into the second half of this decade remains to be seen, but the organization has to recognize that its competitive window with this group of players will be open the widest during the next two seasons.
What we do know is that the Orioles aren't going to throw around $100 million contracts, so there is no reason to fantasize about Robinson Cano or Jacoby Ellsbury. Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette is a value-oriented guy who is obsessed with pitching, so the focus is more likely to fall on the second tier of the free-agent pitching roster.
Even so, the early indicators are pointing toward some hefty price tags, so Duquette may have to gamble to come up with a legitimate upper-rotation starter who isn't going to command a five-year deal. There are some interesting candidates, including 38-year-old Tim Hudson, who had won at least 16 games for three straight seasons before suffering a freak ankle injury last July.
The Orioles certainly hope that their stable of young starters continues to evolve under new pitching coach Dave Wallace, but Duquette may see extra value in a quality thirtysomething veteran who can show Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Eduardo Rodriguez how it's done.
Since improving the rotation appears to be Job One, it may be a while before Duquette gets serious about filling the on-base percentage gap in the batting order. That's an area that has to be addressed before the Orioles open spring training, but there are some moving parts that could impact that decision. The club is trying to re-sign left fielder Nate McLouth and is waiting to see whether it will be practical to bring back Brian Roberts.
In a perfect world, the O's would hold onto McLouth and sign someone like switch-hitting first baseman Kendrys Morales to fill the designated hitter role, but — as a certain classic rock group once pointed out — you can't always get what you want.
But if the Orioles try hard enough, they might get what they need.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.