No matter how good any team is, there's always room for improvement.
The Baltimore Orioles are no exception to this rule.
After winning 93 games this season, beating the Texas Rangers in the Wild Card matchup, and forcing a Game 5 against the New York Yankees in the ALDS, it looks like the O's are starting to get to where they can be a serious World Series contender, with just a few tweaks.
For the first time in too long, the team and its fans can go into the offseason thinking that a couple of key additions are what could help push this team to being a champion.
This winter, the free-agent market appears to be a bit thin. So if the Orioles want to improve through the market, they're going to have to shop smartly.
Here's a few suggestions for the team to look at.
Keep in mind that I'm not suggesting the O's have to sign everyone listed. Obviously, teams target more players than they end up signing every offseason because they have to have backup options in case they miss out on certain players. This list is intended to be a broad view—players the O's would like to have—but obviously, they will be trying to make wise choices on specific players.
This one is a no-brainer.
Nate McLouth was sensational for the Orioles after he was called up later in the season, stabilizing the defense in left field and providing a solid leadoff hitter after right fielder Nick Markakis went down.
Not to mention, it seemed as though McLouth was the only Orioles player who felt like hitting the ball during the playoffs, as he batted .308 with one homer and five RBI in 26 at-bats. Throw three stolen bags into the mix, and he was easily the most productive hitter for the team in the postseason.
McLouth is the type of player the Orioles need to go after this offseason. He's talented, but he won't break the bank. He's the type of under-the-radar contributor every team needs to have, and the way he helped the outfield defense overall after his call-up to the bigs cannot be overlooked.
Other than McLouth, the O's in-house options for left field are Nolan Reimold, who has power to spare but can't seem to stay healthy, and Chris Davis, who is better suited as a DH and backup corner outfielder. Bringing McLouth back will provide depth for the outfield as well as experience and a solid bat. If Reimold happens to stay healthy, a platoon in left could be a very real possibility.
McLouth won't be expensive, and he won't be hard to convince since he's expressed interest in returning to the team for 2013. Two years at around $3 million per year would be a good deal for both sides.
James Shields, one of Tampa Bay's top pitchers, will likely be hitting the open market this winter as his $9 million club option seemingly will be too expensive for the the Rays to pick up.
If that's the case, every team in baseball will be interested in his services, but only some will be able to afford them.
One of those teams who could actually take him on are the Orioles, who have some extra finances and are always looking to upgrade their rotation.
While the O's rotation was better in 2012 than in seasons past, it could still use some improvement, starting with a bona fide ace.
Granted, Shields isn't an ace in comparison to someone like Justin Verlander or CC Sabathia, but he is an AL East battle-tested, playoff-tested pitcher who would automatically become No. 1 on the Orioles' staff. A one-two punch of Shields and current ace by default Jason Hammel would be a very nice way to open the season, and should the Orioles make the playoffs again in 2013, would make the starting rotation that much deeper.
In this writer's humble opinion, Shields is the best starting option out there this winter, and I would be absolutely thrilled if the O's were able to swipe him from the division rival Rays for somewhere around three or four years at $7 million to $10 million per year.
If the Orioles can't re-sign Nate McLouth, Juan Pierre could be a nice alternative as a fourth outfielder type for the team.
Pierre is the type of player who could provide a spark on the bases as a pinch runner—and the O's are sorely lacking in the base stealing department—or could affect the game as a late-inning defensive replacement in left field for Nolan Reimold or Chris Davis.
Basically, if brought on, Pierre would assume the role the O's envisioned for Endy Chavez when they signed him to a one-year deal prior to the 2012 season. Obviously, the O's would hope that Pierre would fare better than Chavez did.
No matter how many people think Pierre is done, he continues to surprise year after year, and can still hit the ball and swipe a base, as evidenced by his .307 batting average in 394 at-bats and 37 stolen bases for the Philadelphia Phillies this season. And his .351 on base percentage would be second to Nick Markakis of all Orioles regulars.
Pierre will draw the interest of many teams this winter, and rightfully so. He can help out in a number of ways.
No one knows what's going to come of Brian Roberts. Will he be ready and healthy in 2013, or will the O's be leaning on the likes of Robert Andino and Ryan Flaherty for the second year in a row?
If the O's aren't satisfied with their in-house options at second base, Kelly Johnson would be a solid and cheap alternative.
Having bounced around some over the past couple of seasons, Johnson is a guy who is in demand, but not to the point where he would cost too much to sign. He's a solid defensive second baseman, can handle the bat alright, but has become a low-average type and has stayed healthy most of his career, which is something that can't be said about Roberts over the past three years.
Johnson could likely be had on a stopgap deal: one or two years at a few million per year. That could set the table for a player like Flaherty or Jonathan Schoop to spend some time developing in the minors a little longer and then take over the everyday duties at second.
More than likely, the Birds will stick with what they've got at second going into 2013, while possibly adding a cheap and defense-oriented veteran much like Omar Quintanilla just before or during spring training to add a little more competition. If they don't, however, Johnson is just the type of player they would and should target for the spot.
With a team option of $9.5 million, Gavin Floyd likely won't be picked up by the Chicago White Sox unless the two parties negotiate a new deal.
If Chicago doesn't want him back at all, Floyd will hit the open market, and will yet again draw interest from the Orioles, who have been rumored to have wanted to trade for him for years.
Being from Annapolis and going to high school at Mt. Saint Joseph's in Baltimore, Floyd appeals to the team in the hometown-guy department, and the O's surely hope the appeal on that front is mutual.
Floyd is also a solid pitcher, with a career 4.46 ERA and having thrown 168 or more innings in each of the past five seasons.
He's no ace, but he'd thicken up the O's pitching staff, and bring a known and consistent commodity to Baltimore. For the right price, you can't complain there.
Though Floyd wouldn't be my first choice, it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to see him pitching for the O's come 2013.
Hailing from Falls Church, Va., Joe Saunders is much like Gavin Floyd in that he represents a hometown player. Saunders is also like Floyd in the way that the two have both been consistent and reliable pitchers over their careers who aren't aces, but eat innings, provide a quality ERA and give their team a chance to win more times than not.
What leans in Saunders' favor, though, is that he's a lefty, and that he's actually pitched for the Orioles, having ended the season with the team after his acquisition from the Arizona Diamondbacks in August.
Saunders threw extremely well for the Birds after coming to the team, going 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA over 44.2 innings, and pitched the O's past the Texas Rangers in the Wild Card game with a solid 5.2 inning, one-run performance.
If the Orioles are hoping that Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman can turn into true aces for the team either late in 2013 or early 2014 and because of that don't want to bring in a big-name pitcher, Saunders would be a great option to help reinforce the starting rotation and hold down the fort for the team until that time comes.
Though he's not a hometown guy, Anibal Sanchez is a legitimate No. 2 or 3 pitcher, and would be a great pickup for the O's should they want to spend some serious money on a pitcher not named James Shields.
With a career ERA of 3.75 and a no-hitter to his name, Sanchez has shown he's a more than just an innings eater. Over the last three seasons, he's thrown 195, 196.1, and 195.2 innings, respectively.
Sanchez happens to be with the Detroit Tigers in the World Series right now, so he has deep playoff experience, and is still just 28 years of age, though he'll be 29 by the start of the 2013 season.
If brought on, Sanchez could slot either in front of or behind Jason Hammel in the O's starting rotation, and would make the O's starting staff much deeper.
Something tells me that Sanchez won't generate the amount of interest from the Orioles that he probably should, but I've been wrong before. He'll most certainly be in demand this winter, and usually, the O's don't touch pitchers in demand. But we'll see.
That veteran, defense-oriented second baseman I mentioned on Kelly Johnson's slide?
Jeff Keppinger would fit into that role. And he can basically play anywhere but catcher and center field.
Keppinger is certainly the type of player the O's could target to provide some added competition at second base going into the 2013 season, and would be a more experienced alternative to Robert Andino and Ryan Flaherty.
Plus, Keppinger doesn't strike out. He just plain doesn't. Over the course of his eight-year career, he's had a total of 2,459 at-bats and has struck out in just 173 of them. Couple that with a career batting average of .288 and on base percentage of .337, and he's no offensive liability.
As a cheap get, Keppinger would definitely be a good depth add for the Orioles, who just can't rely on Brian Roberts to be a healthy and productive second baseman anymore.
Though Mark Reynolds has power to spare, that wouldn't be the main reason the O's would be interested in bringing him back.
Reynolds has grown into one of the better defensive first baseman in the league, and unless the team wants to use Chris Davis at first in 2013, they have no one there going forward.
I list Reynolds as an "infielder" because he can play third base. Originally, the O's traded for him be their everyday third baseman.
But just because he can play somewhere doesn't mean he should. His inconsistency at the hot corner is what forced the Orioles to move him across the diamond, but it ended up working out for both parties. Not only did Reynolds discover his ability at first and the Orioles uncover a good defensive first baseman to use, but it also allowed the team to promote top prospect Manny Machado.
The O's won't be picking up Reynolds' $11 million option for next season. His poor first half offensively pretty much assured that. But his offensive explosion in the second half, coupled with his earning of the nickname "The Magic Toe", leaves the O's front office with a tough decision to make.