Orioles manager Buck Showalter is fond of saying, "I like our guys." It's not for nothing he says that. Last year's O's won 96 games on the way to taking the AL East for the first time since 1997. They were an unheralded bunch until they smoked the division. Nearly every key contributor to that team is returning this year, with the addition, hopefully, of healthy Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis. I also like our guys. I have the t-shirt.
The offseason has been a boring and at times frustrating one, sitting around twiddling thumbs while the big-market competition in New York and Boston was out there making big trades or signings. Of course they were. The Yankees finished 12 games behind the Orioles and the Red Sox were 25 games out. They have to get on the Orioles' level. The Orioles are already on the level.
Did I mention boring? With the signing of James Shields by the Padres, there isn't even the chance for any kind of qualifying offer dumpster diving as spring training begins. Maybe the Orioles also really like their guys. You can do a lot worse than bringing back the vast majority of players from a division winner.
This is a core of players who, in the ALDS, demolished a Tigers team that started three Cy Young-winning pitchers, then lost in the ALCS against a Royals team by a total margin of six runs in four games. No ball bounced their way in the whole series and still it was that close. You always hear about teams wanting to get guys with playoff experience. Between 2012 and 2014, that covers just about everybody. That's not a bad place to be.
It could all still go horribly. After all, the last Orioles division winner followed up that season with a 79-win season. There's little in common between the 1998 Orioles and the upcoming 2015 Orioles. For starters, this time around, they did not run their Manager of the Year winner out of town.
Another big difference is the age: the average batter for that '98 team was 33.1 years old, with the average pitcher being 30.5 years old. If we make the rough calculation of adding a year to the 2014 team's numbers, which is close enough since it's currently shaping up to be most all of the same players, we should expect the 2015 Orioles to have an average batter age of 29.3, with an average pitcher age of 28.7 years old.
That's a hopefully-sweet spot. It means there are players who are still on the right side of their prime, or at least not far into the decline phase. The oldest player on the 40-man roster is J.J. Hardy, who is still just 32. This is not a geriatric unit full of guys you might reasonably believe could suddenly lose what makes them an MLB-caliber player. The phrase, "They'll all be a year older" is something to fear for some teams. For the Orioles it just means they have a year more experience.
What that also means there aren't many untested rookies who will be asked to do something major. If neither of the Rule 5 draftees, Logan Verrett or Jason Garcia, stick for the whole season, the Orioles might not have any rookies on the team at all, at least not until September callups roll around.
They are neither overly young nor old. They have a track record of recent success. Does that guarantee that good things will happen this year? No. Someone unexpected could get hurt and miss a ton of time, pressing a lesser replacement into duty. Someone could battle a nagging injury for the whole season that makes him look like a shell of himself. The Orioles overcame things like these last year between Machado's injury and whatever happened to Davis, but it doesn't mean they will if big injuries happen again.
Maybe the assorted projections and their dogmatic disciples who've counted out the Orioles as the team was on its way to recent postseason runs will turn out to be correct that the nasty specter of regression lurks right around the next corner.
Aside from the simple fact that life is better for Orioles fans when they cruise into the postseason than when they lose, there's another big reason to want good things for our guys this year. We need to enjoy them while they last. It's a little early yet to panic about it, but there are going to be a number of holes to fill to make the 2016 Orioles roster that they did not have to fill this offseason. A year from now, we will be contemplating a team with a lot of turnover compared to the one we see this season.
There are many pending free agents to come. Two members of the starting rotation, Bud Norris and Wei-Yin Chen, are entering their last year before they go on the open market. In the bullpen, Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, and Ryan Webb are soon-to-be free agents. Nominal outfielders Pearce and Delmon Young are set to test the waters, as is actual outfielder Alejandro De Aza. That's not even mentioning Wieters and Davis, the duo of Scott Boras clients who have figured to be headed for bigger paychecks than the Orioles could or would offer ever since each first put on an O's uniform.
That's ten players who could soon be on the way out of town. A couple might return if their price range matches what the O's are willing to commit. Most will be playing elsewhere in a year's time. Though stars like Adam Jones and Machado don't figure to be going anywhere, nor do stars of our dreams like Kevin Gausman and Zach Britton, starting about nine months from now, there are going to be many different guys around those stars. Hopefully Buck still likes them and hopefully O's fans do too.
This offseason was indeed a boring one. The next one likely won't be. Those pending free agents together represent nearly half of the Orioles' estimated 2015 payroll of $121.6 million. Some who are still around will eat up a bit more of the money from the budget as their arbitration salaries escalate. Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Britton will get a second bite at the apple. Machado will be arbitration-eligible for the first time.
Even with those arbitration players getting more expensive, there will also be a lot of money hanging around to spend. With as many as four of those departing free agents possibly being qualifying offer-worthy, the O's might even be able to pluck a player or two from elsewhere without pressing a plunger and exploding an entire draft as they did a year ago. It's nice if you can play for the present and the future at the same time.
Despite nothing much happening over these fall and winter months, the team figures to be in a good place heading into the season. It's set to be the swan song for a number of players who, while not the top stars, are nonetheless key figures in this recent era of the Orioles. Here's hoping they give us plenty of reasons to enjoy it.