During my 30 years of covering the Baltimore Orioles, I can't remember a time when I felt the team was at a more important crossroads than it is right now.
Like an elevator, the Orioles could go up next season, but if they make a series of miscalculations, they most assuredly could go down, both in the win-loss department and in the perception that they are truly committed to winning championships.
Let's take a look at three key areas that will require decisive action this offseason:
1. Re-Signing Chris Davis
It's really nobody's fault the Orioles are in the position they are with Davis. His agent, Scott Boras, is a tough negotiator, and Davis has earned the right to be paid top dollar for probably the first and only time of his career. Davis will turn 30 March 17, 2016, and hopefully, for Orioles fans, it'll be during spring training in Sarasota, Fla., with the Birds. During the 2013 and 2015 seasons, while he had a medical exemption to take prescription medicine for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Davis had a total of 100 home runs, 255 RBIs, 203 runs, 73 doubles and a .365 on-base percentage. Back in August, I estimated Davis could be in line for a five-year, $100 million deal. But when comparing Davis' numbers to some of the league's highest-paid sluggers -- Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim first baseman Albert Pujols and Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, I now expect Davis to command a six-year, $150 million contract.
I think salary range might be the Orioles' limit for Davis. But what if another team ups the ante to seven or eight years for $30 million annually? At that point, I don't think the Orioles will feel they can make the deal and have enough money left to surround Davis with enough talent to win.
2. Getting Some Hitters Who Get On Base
The Orioles finished the 2015 season ranked 24th in baseball with a .307 OBP. At the other end of the spectrum, the American League East champion Toronto Blue Jays led baseball with a .340 clip. When considering potential free-agent hitters or trade targets, OBP needs to be a key part of the equation for the Orioles. Some players they could target in free agency to help with that include outfielders Jason Heyward (.353 career OBP), Denard Span (.352) and Justin Upton (.352), utility man Ben Zobrist (.355) and catcher/designated hitter John Jaso (.361).
Pending free-agent outfielder Gerardo Parra, whom the Orioles acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers at the non-waiver trade deadline July 31, might be a fit with a career .326 OBP. As much as Orioles manager Buck Showalter may like shortstop J.J. Hardy (.307 OBP), second baseman Jonathan Schoop (.270) and center fielder Adam Jones (.319), their struggles to get on base don't leave much wiggle room to maximize the club's run production.
3. Improving The Starting Pitching
Many know what a disaster 2014 was for right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez during his first season with the team. But with the hard work he put in during the offseason, coupled with pitching coach Dave Wallace's and bullpen coach Dom Chiti's tutelage, Jimenez bounced back in 2015 and should be a suitable middle-of-the-rotation starter moving forward.
With right-hander Kevin Gausman's electric stuff, he just needs to gain the command that has somehow eluded him to this point. Both Jimenez and Gausman figure to be in the middle of the Orioles' rotation next season.
As for the top three spots in the rotation, the Orioles simply have to do better than they did in 2015, at least with who figures to return. Pending free-agent lefty Wei-Yin Chen is most likely a goner, which is too bad, but Orioles fans can't cry over spilt milk.
Right-hander Chris Tillman is still working with a year-to-year commitment. He will be eligible for arbitration next season and is slated to make about $6.9 million. The challenge for the Orioles will be figuring out how to get Tillman to revert to the form he showed during 2014, when he went 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA in 207.1 innings. While Tillman isn't a true No. 1 starter, he could be a solid No. 2 if he rediscovers what made him so successful in 2014.
So, who could be the candidates to round out the other top spots in the rotation? Although pending free-agent right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto and left-hander David Price would surely make fans feel better, they are all likely well out of the Orioles' price range.
A more realistic target might be someone like pending free-agent right-hander Doug Fister, who has spent his six-year career with the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers and Washington Nationals. Fister likely wouldn't come cheap, but a two-year deal in the range of $17-19 million could entice him enough to come to Baltimore, especially after dealing with injuries and a demotion to the bullpen in 2015.
Pending free-agent right-hander Bartolo Colon, who will turn 43 May 24, 2016, continues to defy Father Time and could be a perfect fit for the Birds on a one-year deal worth about $9-10 million.
A few years ago, Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was interested in left-hander Scott Kazmir before Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane inked him to a two-year, $22 million deal. Kazmir, who is scheduled to hit the free-agent market this offseason, could be a realistic fit for the Orioles this time around. But his price tag might be too similar to the three- or four-year deal for $15 million annually that Chen is likely to receive.
J.A. Happ is another pending free-agent left-hander who might make sense for the Orioles and be attainable for a three-year deal at around $30 million. Happ finally seemed to turn the corner and find success at the big league level during the second half of the season under Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage.
Houston Astros left-hander Brett Oberholtzer is an option who may be worth targeting via trade. Three years ago, Oberholtzer was considered one of the Astros' top pitching prospects, along with fellow southpaw Dallas Keuchel, who has emerged to be a star.
There is one other left-handed option who might be a bit of risk, but one who wouldn't cost nearly as much as some of the aforementioned names. Moving Brian Matusz from the bullpen to the rotation might make the most sense for the Orioles, considering he'll likely make close to $4 million during his final year of arbitration.
Matusz could be motivated by the opportunity to set himself up for a big payday in the future, giving the O's 150-160 innings as a starter while keeping the team in a lot of games.
This offseason figures to be just as entertaining and interesting as any in recent memory. The news that Duquette and Showalter will be putting their heads together to create a contender for 2016 and beyond should be music to Orioles fans' ears. Especially if team owner Peter Angelos provides the green sheet music.