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Inbox: What is the Orioles' biggest need for '13?

BALTIMORE -- Welcome back, Inbox. I was floored with how many responses I got for questions about the Orioles' offseason and will try to make this a more regular feature to keep you up to speed. Here's the latest batch of the most frequently-asked queries, as Baltimore tries to build on an impressive 2012 season.

There are still plenty of questions and, following the conclusion of the World Series, things will start to get active and interesting as free agency officially kicks off around baseball. As always, thanks for your input and keep it coming.

What do you see as the biggest offseason priority and who would you consider the biggest name via trade or free agency you'd expect to hear buzz with the Orioles?
-- Ryan, Baltimore.

Position-wise, the Orioles' biggest need has to be second base. Simply put, Brian Roberts hasn't played a full season since 2009 and -- while executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said Roberts is expected to be ready for Spring Training -- the organization can't count on that. I fully expect the O's to test the market, although a quick look at free agent second basemen isn't entirely promising. The organization's philosophy under Duquette has been to build a young core from within and add players as they go. With no second base prospect on the horizon in the Minor Leagues, Baltimore's best bet here looks like to trade for a second baseman, preferably a guy under team control with a high on-base percentage, since a one-year solution would be just that.

The Orioles are also in need of a No. 1 starter and a middle-of-the-order bat -- the latter an issue on full display in the playoffs -- although it's unlikely either solution will come from free agency. Both of those require a serious financial commitment and Duquette has already stated he believes the organization can remain within the parameters of the current payroll and be competitive.

The expectation is for the club to sign veteran starters at a cheaper rate -- such as Joe Saunders, a free-agent-to-be who could potentially return -- and try to upgrade the lineup with high OBP guys who can help add depth. There's also the expectation that guys like Adam Jones and Matt Wieters will continue to improve at the plate. You will hear all sorts of big names linked with the Orioles -- it wouldn't be Hot Stove Season if you didn't -- but competition for the premiere free agents is expected to be very tough with lots of clubs with enviable amounts of money to spend.

With Mark Reynolds' great defense after moving to first base, albeit with lower offensive production, do you see the O's bringing him back?
-- Jeff N., Hyde Park, N.Y.

With a weak corner infield free-agent class, Reynolds is perhaps the Orioles' biggest decision. If the club picks up his $11-million option he would be the second-highest player on the team, behind Nick Markakis, and while his offensive numbers probably don't justify that kind of money, there aren't a whole lot of better options for Baltimore if they non-tender Reynolds. The 29-year-old is the type of player manager Buck Showalter loves, a competitor who played through numerous injuries and worked hard to turn himself into an above-average defender at first base.

If the Orioles decline Reynolds' option, they could still buy it out at $500,000 and offer him arbitration, which would bump up his $7.5 million salary some from 2012. If the O's don't offer him a contract, Reynolds would effectively become a free agent and with an offseason home in Arizona, he could opt to return to the National League and/or play for a team that has Spring Training out west. Baltimore could attempt to resign Reynolds as a free agent, but with the slim pickings available Reynolds would likely get a better deal elsewhere. It's in the Orioles' best interest to try to retain Reynolds at a discounted rate, although they could move Chris Davis back to first base and try to supplement Reynolds' 20-plus homers and solid OBP with another move.

What do Dan D. and the front office have to do in the offseason to maintain the dominance of the bullpen that we saw this past year?
-- Steven P., New York, N.Y.

Not much. The bullpen that was key to the Orioles' success was made up of guys who are under team control, starting with closer Jim Johnson. And while Johnson and Darren O'Day are in line for some raises in arbitration, the O's only real decision in the bullpen is Luis Ayala's option, which is $1 million with a $100,000 buyout. That's expected to be picked up and the team's biggest need in relief -- assuming Brian Matusz is again a rotation candidate -- will be to find another lefty to go along with Troy Patton. They'll also, like every team in baseball, have a host of guys invited to big league camp to give them depth and options in the 'pen.

Are the roles of guys like Matusz and Tommy Hunter going to be determined this winter or will this be a Spring Training determination?
-- Rusty P., McLean, Va.

Matusz and Hunter are still considered starters and will be moving forward. While both of them thrived in relief in the playoffs, Duquette's preference is for the Orioles to have as many rotation options as possible with guys stretched out to go deep into games this spring. The theory is pretty standard since it's easier to have pitchers ready to start, and then move them to relief for the year then to go through camp as a reliever and have to stretch them back out due to injuries or other moves. Both Matusz and Hunter are still young pitchers and it figures to be a make-or-break camp for a lot of the organization's young arms, including Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton, who were also out of the rotation during the team's playoff run. Duquette's primary emphasis last season -- to add pitching depth -- has a dozen guys in consideration for a rotation that must get better in 2013.

Will Dylan Bundy have a shot at a rotation spot with the O's, or will he start out next season in the Minors?
-- Shaeffer H., Harrah, Okla.

Speaking of rotation candidates, Bundy's name has to be included as does fellow top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman. Of the two, Gausman is older (21) and is a more polished college arm, meaning his ascent to Baltimore could be quicker than the 19-year-old Bundy, who is already on the 40-man roster and had a cup of coffee as a brief September callup. Both young pitchers could be in Baltimore by midseason, although it's unlikely either of them break camp. Assuming the Orioles avoid an overload of injuries, they have enough candidates in the rotation to ensure both Bundy and Gausman aren't rushed up. Duquette believes that Double-A is the level that every young player must establish and succeed at before the organization considers promoting them for an extended period of time, and Bundy -- who ended his Minor League season with Bowie -- and Gausman will have to conquer that level first.

When does baseball announce who won Manager of the Year and what are Showalter's chances?
-- Dan M., Baltimore.

The winners -- one from the National League and one from the American League -- will be unveiled by Major League Baseball on Nov. 13, and Showalter is considered to be the favorite. His top competition is Oakland's Bob Melvin and it's expected to be a pretty close race. Like the Orioles, the A's lost in the AL Division Series and consistently proved early prognosticators wrong.

While Showalter's odds can't be accurately researched, as no members of the BBWAA voting body are allowed to reveal how they are leaning, the award is traditionally given to the manager who most exceeds expectations and overcomes adversity during the season. The Orioles' exceptional record in close games doesn't hurt, either.

Do you think Jim Thome will be back with the Orioles next season?
-- Tom Graves, St. Paul, Minn.

Whether he's playing at all next season is, of course, up to Thome. The likable 42-year-old said at season's end that he would go to his home in the Chicago area and discus his future in baseball with his family before coming to any final decision. Should Thome want to keep playing, the Orioles are expected to try to retain him to some extent, although it would be crowded if they resign Reynolds, since it would likely move Davis to the DH spot along with Wilson Betemit.

Baltimore Orioles, Dylan Bundy, Chris Davis, Tommy Hunter, Adam Jones, Brian Matusz, Darren O'Day, Mark Reynolds, Brian Roberts, Jim Thome