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Finding A Leadoff Hitter Remains Dan Duquette's Top Offseason Priority

October 17, 2016
Now that the 2016 season has been agonizingly relegated to the record books, the Orioles have issues to address going forward -- and they go a lot further than adding a few new pieces for the club's spare parts department.

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette is also the chief inventory officer who scans leftover lists of the other 29 major league clubs in hope of finding a gem among nuggets. It is a thankless and lonely job but somebody has to do it, and Duquette relishes the possibility of rescuing a potentially rare stone from the discard heap.

But Duquette has more on his plate than the task of restocking the inventory, and if his "to-do" list this offseason looks or sounds familiar, there is good reason, because it's not unlike the menu looked at every year since he joined the Orioles following the 2011 season. It was hardly a shocker he would take left-handed pitcher Jed Bradley off the waiver list within hours of the season's end because … well, because Bradley's a left-handed pitcher, so enough said.

There will be many more additions and subtractions from the Orioles' 40-man roster in the next couple of months, as the revolving door is in full operation this time of year. While that carousel spins relentlessly, there are some pressing issues that need to be addressed. Keeping in mind finding a legitimate leadoff hitter for the top of manager Buck Showalter's lineup remains the priority it was a year ago, here are some of the items facing Duquette:

• Making qualifying offers to outfielder/designated hitter Mark Trumbo and catcher Matt Wieters. 

The decision on Trumbo is a no-brainer, even though the Orioles got him last year as part of a "salary dump" by the Seattle Mariners, who were scared off by his arbitration-driven $9 million salary. Off a league-leading, 47-home run season, Trumbo figures to get an attractive multi-year offer, and at the relatively young age of 31 (Jan. 16), it will be significant. How high the numbers go will determine how long the O's are in the discussion, but they should last at least through the opening round of discussion.

Wieters is an even more interesting case, since he was one of two players (Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus the other) who accepted qualifying offers last year, making them the first to do so in the history of the process. Some say the Orioles made the offer only because they didn't think it would be accepted, and will be reluctant to do so this year for the same reason. However, even though his offensive numbers haven't reached projected norms, Wieters proved he was healthy enough to catch on a regular basis last year, after missing more than a full season due to Tommy John surgery. And he has shown a tendency to produce some big hits in key situations, most recently his two-home run outing in Game 162. He'll get a multi-year offer this time around, which might drive the O's out of the process, since catching is one area of depth in the minor league system.

The qualifying offer this year figures to be north of $16 million and is necessary if the Orioles want to receive draft choice compensation should either or both players leave. To not make a qualifying offer to either player would severely damage the Orioles' credibility with its fan base. 

• Have we mentioned the importance of getting a leadoff hitter?

• Jumpstart negotiations for a long-term contract with second baseman Jonathon Schoop.

The obvious desire of Orioles fans is to get third baseman Manny Machado locked up long term, and it is understandable. It is also unlikely. There will be a lot of pressure from within the Players Association for Machado, along with Nationals wunderkind outfielder Bryce Harper (both free agents after the 2018 season) to resist any deal before testing free agency. If a deal for Machado hasn't been reached before this time next year, the Orioles will have no choice but to make the best trade they can, and it might even be something to consider before it gets to that point.

Schoop, Machado's closest friend on the team, is three years away from free agency and entering his first year of arbitration eligibility. A multi-year deal buying out his arbitration years and one or two years of free agency would be more attractive to him and still allow him to reach free agency by his age-30 year. Early on, the Orioles made a mistake by not doing a better job of controlling Schoop's service time. The 27 days he got in 2013, when he played only five games, made it impractical to start him in the minor leagues the next year (thus postponing his free agent eligibility one season). It might be a long shot, but locking up Schoop long term might be the best chance the Orioles have of extending Machado beyond 2018 -- keeping in mind both could still hit free agency by the age of 30.

• Find a No. 1 hitter

• Attempt an extension for starter Chris Tillman

Tillman has a lot in common with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco -- both have achieved "star" ranking without being granted "elite" status. Tillman had a good bounce-back season in 2016 that partially negated a disappointing 2015. He has been the O's best starter, the only "No. 1" to emerge on the staff, in two of the last three years. He has been a work in progress and, at the age of 29 (April 15), is on schedule for free agency after next season.

It would seem to be in the club's best interests to try for a two or three-year contract now. The only other option(s) would be a trade or qualifying offer next year, if such an option is in place once the new Collective Bargaining System is ratified.

• Make a decision early on how many innings starter Dylan Bundy can pitch

We can put starter Kevin Gausman in this category, too, because the baby steps being assigned to these two potential top-of-the-line starters is mind-boggling. At the rate he's going, Bundy will not only be arbitration eligible, he'll be close to free agency before he gets close to 200 innings in a season.

The Orioles, like most teams, seem to have a "plus-30" limit on young pitchers and the number of innings they can pitch each year. Hopefully the wraps are off Gausman, who displayed bulldog tendencies late in the season and appears ready to take the next step. Coupled with Tillman, he gives the Orioles a solid one-two at the top of the rotation.

Bundy was projected to make that a trio, but it's anybody's guess where he fits in right now. It's even possible he'll start another season in the bullpen as a long reliever, but the clock is ticking on his developmental stage.

• Oh yeah, find a leadoff hitter -- preferably someone from somewhere other than the spare parts department

The best signing Duquette made last year was like the fisherman's catch that got away. Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler would have fit in perfectly with the Orioles had he not changed his mind and taken less money to stay in Chicago. 

Spoiler alert: Fowler has an opt-out and might be available again.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 226: October 2016