BALTIMORE -- The Orioles are coming off their first winning season in 15 years, a 2012 campaign that saw the city host its first playoff game since 1997 and ended with a Game 5 loss to the Yankees in the American League Division Series.
Yes, this year's team was much better than expected and, with any luck, the Orioles will begin to trend toward more of a destination for top-flight free agents given their success and signing center fielder Adam Jones -- who has been vocal about selling Baltimore to other players -- for the long term.
Just how much the O's will dabble in the free-agent market -- and to what extent -- remains to be seen as the organization remains focused on continuing to strengthen international efforts and build up a Minor League system to provide the necessary depth for the big league club. The Orioles have a core group of players under team control --dominated by arbitration-eligible guys in the double digits -- and as executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette approaches the one-year mark in the organization, his public stance on free agency remains relatively unchanged.
"I've said all along, the way to build a good ballclub is from the ground up; it's not from the top down," Duquette said. "Having said that, we signed a couple free agents last year that did a good job. ... So, we are always looking for opportunity, but I'm going to tell you this: the core players are going to come from our Minor League system. The really good ballplayers. And we've got a couple of them on the horizon that can help our pitching staff."
The couple is a reference to top pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, both of whom could reach Baltimore at some point next season -- Bundy already made a brief September debut -- and add further excitement to a team full of young up-and-comers.
Duquette's main priority last winter, in adding pitching depth, paid dividends in helping an unstable rotation keep it together in 2012, and the expectation again this spring is it will be a crowded starting staff fighting for a spot. Converted starters such as Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter --both flourished in relief -- are expected to among those in contention for spots in the 2013 Orioles' rotation.
There are also several key players expected to return from injury -- Opening Day starters Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold among them -- and free-agent decisions that include, most notably: left-handed starter Joe Saunders, outfielder Nate McLouth and veteran designated hitter Jim Thome.
As manager Buck Showalter memorably referenced in his opening speech in August 2010, the Orioles' transcendence is like a scene from the movie "Braveheart" where Mel Gibson and his troops are just about ready to storm the hill, waiting for Gibson -- who keeps instructing them to hold -- to finally yell, "Now," and go all-in.
"It's not always the marquee perception of some guy," Showalter said of the Orioles' tendency to add lesser-known names and reclamation projects. "It's baseball players. But we are kind of getting into that Braveheart move."
With that in mind, here's an early look at what the Orioles have for 2013 ...
Catcher: Two-time All-Star Matt Wieters makes this one of the Orioles' strongest positions. Wieters continues to establish himself as one of the league's best behind the plate and he took on a big workload this season, catching 144 regular-season games. Wieters' primary backup, Taylor Teagarden, is under team control and arbitration-eligible for the first time in his career.
First Base: What to do with Mark Reynolds? To his credit, he worked himself into becoming a superior first baseman after struggling at third base. Additionally, Reynolds is everything Showalter looks for in a player: tough, no-nonsense and willing to put the team above himself. But will the Orioles deem it enough -- given Reynolds' prolonged offensive struggles -- to pick up his $11 million option? There is a chance the club decides to exercise the $500,000 buyout and non-tender Reynolds hoping to work out a lesser deal. But there is also a chance the 29-year-old walks in that scenario. Baltimore doesn't have a first baseman waiting in the wings -- though Chris Davis is an option -- and this decision is one of the most interesting for Duquette and Co. this winter, particularly with a lack of top-tier free agents.
Second Base: The biggest positional hole for the Orioles the past few years, Duquette said last week that veteran Brian Roberts is expected to be fully healthy for Spring Training. But they can't count on that, given that Roberts hasn't played a full season since 2009. Robert Andino and Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty are the internal options, serving as a platoon to end the season. Steve Tolleson is another option. Expect the Orioles to heavily scout the trade market and free agency to try to find some stability here.
Third Base: Rookie Manny Machado, who debuted in early August, did better than anyone could have expected and the job is his to lose next spring. The 20-year-old Machado is a natural shortstop, but his ease in transitioning to third base -- coupled with Reynolds at first -- improved the Orioles' defense considerably. The team does have other options, with Wilson Betemit returning and Davis' position still yet to be determined, but Machado is the best one.
Shortstop: Machado was moved to third base because the Orioles have one of the better defenders in baseball in J.J. Hardy holding down shortstop. Hardy, who is signed through 2014, has anchored the infield and he will be expected to do so again next season. This is one of the most stable situations the Orioles have.
Designated hitter: Do the Orioles try to bring back Thome, who was a presence in the middle-of-the-order and great to have in the clubhouse? Or do they opt to give Showalter the flexibility he talked about last spring? Thome's future remains in limbo as he declined to talk potential retirement until he discussed it with his family this winter, and the Orioles' DH spot could be a number of players, including Betemit and Davis. But, if the postseason showed one thing it was the Orioles' need for a big bat in the middle of the order, and they could get a DH-type to fill that role from outside the organization.
Outfield: Markakis will be back manning right field for the Orioles and Jones is coming off a career year in center. The question remains if Reimold can stay healthy after dealing with injuries the past few seasons. The 29-year-old left fielder, who is arbitration-eligible, was on an offensive tear before dealing with a neck injury that led to season-ending surgery. Could his uncertainty prompt a move to resign McLouth? The Orioles could also look for other options externally, perhaps using the position to add another option offensively, although McLouth -- who had a high on-base percentage and is exceptional defensively -- fits Duquette's mold to a T.
Rotation: As Duquette noted, the club lacks a true ace. And while the Orioles are hopeful Bundy and Gausman could step up in the role, it's unfair to put those expectations on the young pitchers for next season and unlikely the club signs a true ace in free agency. The Orioles do have numbers on their side again this spring with starting candidates including: Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, Steve Johnson, Bundy and Gausman. They could also make a move to resign Saunders, who grew up an Orioles fan, and Tsuyoshi Wada -- who underwent Tommy John on his left elbow -- is expected to be an option by late spring. There are available options on the free agent market if Duquette decides to go that way, and the organization -- which signed Wada and Chen this winter -- could bring in another international arm or two as well.
Bullpen: One of the biggest factors in 2012's success, the Orioles' bullpen figures to remain pretty much intact for next season. Closer Jim Johnson and reliever Darren O'Day are both arbitration-eligible and figure to get significant raises, while lefty Troy Patton is a Super Two. Pedro Strop is under team control and the Orioles have a $1 million option -- with a $100,000 buyout -- for reliever Luis Ayala, which will probably be picked up given that he pitched to a 2.64 ERA in 64 outings. Like nearly every team, the Orioles will add relievers on one-year deals to compete for spots this spring, with the need for another lefty --assuming Matusz remains a starter -- high on the list.