Christmas has passed, and we're less than a week away from the new year. Most Major League Baseball teams are at or near the completion of their winter shopping, and are looking to make minor moves in the month-and-a-half before spring training.
Then there's the Baltimore Orioles, a team who has the resources to make an impact move or two, but has only seemingly gotten worse on paper.
To many O's fans, this has been an offseason from hell. After the promise of two-consecutive winning seasons, a fan base that had expected to see smart additions to a talented young core has only seen a few moves this winter. The team traded closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in an obvious salary dump, signed relief pitcher Ryan Webb and traded infielder Danny Valencia to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder David Lough. While the acquisitions of Webb and Lough appear to be very solid, the team has yet to spend the money saved from dealing Johnson.
On top of that, they have let starter Scott Feldman, outfielder Nate McLouth and longtime fan favorite second baseman Brian Roberts sign elsewhere, not to mention the back-out of the Grant Balfour deal that is making the team look silly and less appealing to future free agents, given their history with that sort of thing (though to their credit, Balfour doesn't look great in this situation either).
Despite this nightmare-ish offseason, 2014 will be a better year for O's fans than 2013 was, and it can go two different ways.
Scenario One: Regardless of whether or not the team decides to actually spend a little money this winter and/or pull off a big trade, the team has the potential to pull off a playoff-bound season. Entering a new baseball season, any team can pull off the miracle run to the playoffs. That's why the games are played on the field.
However, it wouldn't be a miracle run for the Birds, who have some really good pieces already. A young veteran core made up of center fielder Adam Jones, first baseman Chris Davis, catcher Matt Wieters and shortstop J.J. Hardy could very easily lead the team to wins, as their defense is top-notch and their offense is above average. Add 21-year-old Manny Machado to the mix, and you have five very good players on the ball field for your team.
Right fielder Nick Markakis is looking to have a bounce-back year in 2014 as it's a contract year for him, and Ryan Flaherty looks to finally be given a legit shot at second base. New acquisition Lough should be McLouth-esque in left, making for a solid lineup up and down. The team obviously needs OBP help after ranking 19th in baseball in that department in 2013, but their offense is certainly good enough to win some games as of now.
Chris Tillman is the O's ace by default, and he looks to build on a very strong 2013 in which he went 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA. Behind him, the team has solid options in Miguel Gonzalez, lefty Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris. Prospect Kevin Gausman will likely start the season at Triple-A, but could earn his way up to the bigs in a month or two and hopefully give the starting rotation a shot in the arm with quality pitching.
The bullpen needs work, but Webb will join Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter in holding the lead late in close games, while Brian Matusz (who could compete for a starting job in the spring) may return to being an effective left-hander out of the 'pen.
So, it's not all doom and gloom, O's fans. The team was supposed to suck horribly going into 2012, and we all knew what happened then. While the O's appear likely to regress next season unless they make some serious acquisition, it's not out of the question to have the team improve and come together just like they did in 2012. The talent is certainly there. The question is whether there's enough of it right now, and how will it grow in 2014.
Scenario Two: This is probably the scenario that Orioles fans expect to see in 2014, and it's probably the more likely scenario. If the team fails to make any strong additions this winter, they could easily take a step back in 2014.
The rotation isn't deep enough. The lineup lacks on-base ability. The bullpen is a bit of a mess, especially since Johnson was traded and lefty Troy Patton will have to serve a 25-game suspension at the start of the season. These things don't bode well for a team hoping to compete in 2014 and beyond.
But see, the beyond is the key here. If the O's take a step back in 2014, it could make ownership and the front office realize that they need to make some serious moves next offseason in order to compete, and they can't just sit around and rely on the same team to perform better next season. When you factor in that Davis and Wieters are each signed through only 2015, it puts a bit more emphasis on the idea of "win now." Honestly, that alone should be enough to influence the O's brass to make some moves this winter, and it makes me wonder where their head really is.
If the team goes backwards in 2014, there will likely be a drop in attendance, which means a drop in money made with both tickets and concessions, as well a drop in merchandise sales. That may be enough to make the front office realize that the best way to make money with a sports franchise is to spend enough money to put a winning product on the field, influencing them to do just that next offseason.
The 2014 baseball season will be a very interesting one for the Orioles and their fans, and will likely greatly affect what happens with the franchise in terms of both the immediate and long-term future. This winter hasn't been what any O's fan had hoped for, but there is still time to improve the team, even if time is quickly running out.
Regardless of what happens, though, 2014 will end up being a better year for O's fans than 2013 was, whether it be due to instant gratification or long-term influence. The 2013 season was one full of frustration for O's fans, as a talented team finished with 85 wins and the last week of the season didn't mean much.
Here's to hoping the team makes some impact moves, and soon. Here's to hoping that 2014 means more than 2013 did.