The hot stove season is under way, as MLB players began filing for free agency Oct. 31. Let's take a look at what positions the Orioles, coming off back-to-back winning seasons, will be looking to fill this offseason and which players might fill them.
The Orioles' top priority this offseason -- as it has been for most recent offseasons -- will likely be to upgrade their starting rotation. Unfortunately, the task is easier said than done.
Pop quiz: Who was the last major league starting pitcher to sign a multi-year free-agent deal with the Orioles? Hint: He came from Aruba, his conditioning was suspect and he had a tendency to punch judges. Yes, it was Sidney Ponson and his three-year, $22.5 million deal signed in January 2004. Since then, owner Peter Angelos has been notoriously gun-shy about shelling out big bucks for pitchers.
If that remains the case this offseason, the O's will again be left out of the running for top-tier free-agent starters such as Matt Garza; Ubaldo Jimenez; Ervin Santana; or this year's prize of the Japanese league, right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
That would leave the Orioles sifting through the lower-level free agents, and the pickings are a bit slim. Veteran A.J. Burnett is a workhorse and has Maryland ties, but early rumors suggest he might retire if he doesn't return to the Pirates. Durable right-hander Bronson Arroyo has allowed 104 home runs during the last three years, and homer-friendly Camden Yards wouldn't do him any favors. Former Yankee Phil Hughes has experience pitching in the American League East -- but that's not necessarily a good thing, given how poorly he often pitched.
Don't be surprised if the O's pursue left-hander Jason Vargas, whom they were interested in acquiring last winter before his trade to the Angels. Vargas probably isn't a name that's going to excite anyone, but he has a history of eating innings as a middle-of-the-rotation hurler. The O's could also try to bring back Scott Feldman, who did a solid job after they acquired him in June. If you're hoping for a bigger splash than a Vargas or Feldman type, it's unlikely to happen unless Angelos and the Orioles change their philosophy.
With free agent Brian Roberts' status up in the air, and prospect Jonathan Schoop possibly needing more seasoning in the minors, the O's could be in the market for a second baseman. Say, it just so happens that the most prominent free agent this offseason is a second baseman.
OK, I won't keep up this charade -- the Orioles won't be signing Robinson Cano anytime soon. He'll likely either return to the Yankees on a completely ridiculous contract or sign elsewhere for an even more ridiculous contract.
But there are a couple of free agents who are more cost-efficient options and could be a solid fit on a short-team deal. One is Mark Ellis, late of the Dodgers, who has enjoyed a solid 11-year career. He has a reputation as a good defender who can still hold his own with the bat at age 36. Or the O's could take a look at Omar Infante, who has had a similar career to Ellis in many ways -- 12 seasons in the bigs, and a career .721 OPS to Ellis' .720 -- but has the advantage of being five years younger.
There's a possibility the Orioles could talk trade for a longer-term solution such as the Angels' Howie Kendrick or the Astros' diminutive Jose Altuve, but they'd likely prefer to seek a one-year stopgap and hand the position to Schoop after that.
The Orioles have a decision to make about incumbent left fielder Nate McLouth, who is eligible for free agency. If he's willing to return to the Birds on a one-year deal, as he did last offseason, he could return in 2014, but if he wants a multi-year contract, the O's may let him walk. And because the Orioles are thin on outfield depth, they'd likely need to look outside the organization to replace McLouth.
As is a recurring theme, the best available players will likely be too rich for the Orioles' blood. On paper, free agent Shin-Soo Choo would be a great fit -- his .389 career OBP would be a welcome addition to an O's lineup that struggles to get on base -- but with Scott Boras as his agent, Choo will be looking for a contract outside the Birds' price range.
The O's could instead target a few less-heralded names, all of whom come with question marks. Recent Yankee Curtis Granderson is an intriguing option, but New York gave him a qualifying offer, meaning any other team that signs him would lose a 2014 draft pick. Veteran David Murphy is available, but is coming off a lousy season for Texas (.656 OPS).
In theory, finding a capable designated hitter shouldn't be a difficult task. You just need to find a player who has one skill -- hitting the ball -- and doesn't need to be able to field a position or run. Yet the Orioles were perplexingly unable to find a decent DH in 2013, getting almost no production out of that position until Danny Valencia's late-season hot streak.
Valencia remains an option for 2014, but he had a .203 average against right-handed pitchers in 2013, compared with .371 against left-handers. The O's could seek a more proven option who can hit both lefties and righties effectively. Switch hitter Kendrys Morales isn't a lethal slugger, but is an accomplished veteran who can hit from both sides. The Mariners made him a qualifying offer, though, so the O's would have to weigh whether he's worth a draft pick.
Mike Napoli, an integral part of the World Series-winning Red Sox team, is on the market, but is a long shot to join the Birds. After his Red Sox physical last winter showed Napoli might have a degenerative hip condition -- the same injury that prematurely ended Albert Belle's Orioles career -- Angelos and the O's will likely keep their distance.
On the trade front, the Orioles could try to rekindle talks with Kansas City for Billy Butler, who interested them last year, but with the Royals coming off their best season in ages (86-76), they're unlikely to deal away one of their best hitters. The Twins' Josh Willingham could be a trade possibility as well.
Let's be clear -- backup catcher isn't the most essential job on the team, given that starter Matt Wieters played an MLB-leading 140 games at catcher in 2013. Basically, the O's need someone who can start one day per week behind the plate and otherwise lead cheers from the bench. They have some in-house candidates, including midseason acquisition Steve Clevenger, but could scour the market for an established backup.
Plenty of veteran catchers are available, including defensive specialist Kurt Suzuki and the ageless Henry Blanco, who I think once caught for the Cleveland Spiders before they folded in 1899.
An outside-the-box suggestion would be longtime Braves catcher Brian McCann, who could serve as the Orioles' regular DH and fill in as the starting catcher whenever Wieters needed a breather. But McCann, at 29 years old, might not want to throw in the towel on being an everyday catcher just yet.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
The Orioles haven't normally been a team that makes a huge offseason splash, and don't look for that to change this year. The O's haven't indicated they'll be breaking the bank for big-name free agents or drastically increasing the payroll, so general manager Dan Duquette will likely look to supplement the Orioles' existing nucleus with low-cost free agents or trades.
Reunions with Feldman, Roberts and/or McLouth could fill some of the team's holes, as could signings along the lines of Vargas, Morales and a journeyman backup catcher. With a few smart, under-the-radar acquisitions, the Orioles can build a roster that will be competing for the postseason once again in 2014.