BALTIMORE -- The Orioles' biggest offseason move last winter was to give contract extensions to executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, giving the duo responsible for 2012's playoff run the organization's backing as Baltimore tries to avoid becoming a flash in the pan.
And while the O's return a good core group, this winter will prove to be a significant challenge and a telling part of where the organization is heading after an 85-win season that left the Orioles out of the playoffs and a rejuvenated fanbase restless.
The starting pitching has to improve, and the club needs a viable designated hitter -- along with answers at second base and left field -- and a stronger bench to avoid the scenario that unfolded in '13. Showalter used his starters almost to a fault, with the Orioles becoming the first team in baseball to have seven or more players reach the 140 games played mark. Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy each played in at least 159, with Manny Machado (who sustained a season-ending injury at 156), catcher Matt Wieters (148) and Nate McLouth (146) not far behind.
Fatigue surely played a factor in the O's coming up short, but the club's rotation also had a heavy hand in that, and Baltimore's top priority will be to try to upgrade a starting staff that combined to go fewer than 5.8 innings per start, forcing the bullpen to work overtime and resulting in a 4.20 staff ERA (10th in the American League) and the most homers allowed in the Majors.
The Orioles would like to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm to go along with right-hander Chris Tillman, who is coming off a breakout season, though there are expected to be multiple clubs with deeper pockets looking to do the same, and the free-agent starting options -- particularly with the Giants' recent signing of Tim Lincecum for two years, $35 million -- will be sparse and will typically command much more money than market value.
The O's will get Brian Roberts' $10 million salary off the books, although there is the potential of re-signing the veteran second baseman -- who has had a litany of injuries -- to a small, incentive-based deal. The team's DH search, just like the quest for an ace, is a carryover from not making any huge changes a year ago.
Will this winter be different? Perhaps. But the Orioles also have 11 arbitration-eligible players and some big raises -- including Davis and closer Jim Johnson, who are each projected to hit the $10 million mark -- that will take a significant chunk out of next season's payroll. It is yet to be seen if owner Peter Angelos will green-light Duquette to jump up the payroll for the right player and deal, but the O's -- who are also trying to retain their farm system and build for the future -- are in a precarious spot this offseason. How they go about improving -- via trades or free agency -- should make for an intriguing winter.
Players can sign with other teams five days after the conclusion of the World Series.
Free agents: 2B Roberts, SP Jason Hammel, LF McLouth, SP Scott Feldman, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, 1B/OF Michael Morse, C Chris Snyder
Eligible for arbitration: Johnson, Davis, Wieters, Bud Norris, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Nolan Reimold, Troy Patton, Steve Pearce, Chris Dickerson, Dan Johnson
Non-tender candidates: Reimold, Dickerson, Dan Johnson
Club options: Tsuyoshi Wada ($5 million) and Alexi Casilla (team option $3 million with a $200,000 buyout). Wilson Betemit, who was released by the Orioles in-season, also had a vesting option that was not reached.
Areas of need
Starting pitching: Who doesn't need starting pitching? The Orioles' top priority is also going to be the most coveted on the open market. There is interest in retaining Feldman over Hammel, but the O's still need a No. 1 or 2 starter to help stabilize things next spring.
Second base: The Orioles are not in the Robinson Cano $300 million sweepstakes, and they could rely on utility man Ryan Flaherty or Jonathan Schoop, rated the O's No. 4 prospect by MLB.com. Bringing back Roberts is also a possibility, and Baltimore will scour the free-agent market as well.
Designated hitter: The team's DH woes were well documented in 2013, and the Orioles' offense, which was erratic, would benefit from another middle-of-the-order bat. Showalter would ideally have a flexible DH spot -- perhaps a corner outfielder with pop -- that he can use to rotate around and give some of the position players a half-day.
Left field: McLouth signed a one-year deal to return to Baltimore after half a season in '12, and he will command a longer contract and more money on the open market than a year ago. While both sides could explore a return -- particularly with McLouth fitting in so well with the O's -- that will depend on where the club has allocated its resources and what other organizations are offering. There are some viable options on the free-agent market, although Morse is not someone Baltimore will consider retaining.
2014 payroll: Roberts has the biggest impact, but Hammel's $6.75 million, which he made after a career year in '12, and Wada's $4.2 million are also off the books, which should help offset some of the expected arbitration raises. The Orioles had an Opening Day payroll just over $92 million last year and are not expected to make any big jumps in 2014. Still, there have been rumors of potential contract extensions regarding Wieters and Davis, and Duquette has shown the willingness to offer medium-sized contracts to pitchers in previous stops, so there is certainly some wiggle room and opportunity to upgrade the roster.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.