Orioles in win-now mode for 2014 as Davis, Wieters, Hardy near free agency

Possibility of window closing for team's current core creates urgency for a playoff push

March 29, 2014|By Childs Walker and Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

Leave it to Adam Jones to cut past any bromides about staying in the moment.

"It is going to be dicey to see what goes on in the next year, year and a half," says the Orioles' All-Star center fielder, preparing for another day's work at the club's spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla. "It will be real interesting this offseason, to be honest, because you have people being free agents and going into free agency [the following year]."

Maybe it seems premature to fret about the future when the present seems so promising for the 2014 Orioles, who evoke memories of past Baltimore contenders with their combination of power, sound glovework and young pitching.

Orioles fans waited 15 years for their team to be competitive again, and this is the payoff. But as is the case for many small- and mid-market franchises, the window to enjoy success might be narrow.

Four key everyday players — Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters — are scheduled to reach free agency after this season or next. The Orioles lack obvious replacements for any of the four, with Davis' power and Wieters' all-around play at catcher representing particularly scarce commodities.

Though the club has expressed interest in re-signing Davis and Wieters before they reach free agency after the 2015 season, both are represented by agent Scott Boras, who made his reputation seeking the most money possible on the open market.

Some analysts have already begun talking about the pair as midseason trade candidates should the Orioles get off to a slow start. And the future uncertainty has created an urgent interest in winning this season and next.

"The time is now, right?" says Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette.

Which is perhaps why fans seemed so depressed for much of the winter, as the club failed to sign any high-profile players. That all changed at the dawn of spring training, when the Orioles suddenly pounced on hard-throwing starter Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz for a combined $58 million.

"The second these guys came into the clubhouse, there was a whole new buzz," says Chris Tillman, who led the club in wins last season.

With Jimenez bolstering the team's weakest area, its starting rotation, and Cruz added to a lineup that led the majors in home runs in 2013, the Orioles seem like the contender fans so desperately wanted.

"I think they're in the mix," says John Hart, former general manager of the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers and now an MLB Network analyst. "The fact that they were willing to give up draft picks to get the guys they needed leads me to believe they're doing what they can to get back to the postseason right now. I think they've done a terrific job."

Hart went through a similar situation with the young core of the 1990s Indians and said he was cognizant of building the best teams he could around players such as Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome. He knew he wouldn't have them forever.

'Win-now mentality'

Ask the Orioles themselves about this window for contention and you get a mixed response.

"I think we all feel there is that small window," says Hardy, the All-Star shortstop entering the last year of his contract. "I think we all know the situation, but to put extra pressure on ourselves to make it this year or make it next year, that's just making it tough. I don't know if anyone is doing that."

Hardy knows whereof he speaks. He was part of a young core with the Milwaukee Brewers that never made the sustained contending run many expected.

Other players say they can't afford to dwell on the picture beyond this season.

"We look at it as a win-now mentality, but as far as any kind of window or time frame when we have to win, no, we don't look at that as players," Wieters says. "As players, this is the year we have to win. And that's not going to change next year. It's not going to change the year after that."

The catcher's words would certainly please manager Buck Showalter, who doesn't want his players fixating on the club's future makeup.

"With the players, I don't want that to permeate," Showalter says. "Sure, people talk about that because they perceive where something might end. But I look at every day as a beginning. I don't live in that world and I don't let the players live in it. And they don't. I don't think people realize, that's not a constant source of subject matter for them."

For much of the Orioles' 14-year run of losing, the club was not merely bad but perpetually in flux. Fans never got to bond with a core group of players as they had repeatedly during the franchise's long period of success between 1964 and 1983. Only second baseman Brian Roberts felt like any kind of constant.

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