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Looking at next year’s free agents is a reminder the Orioles must go for it

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The clock is ticking for the Orioles on decisions regarding Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Brad Brach, as well as Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2017 free agent period kicking off this week, tactically the Orioles current focus is on improving their starting pitching, among other things. A 75-87 season, last in the American League East, calls for a lot to get better before arriving in Sarasota, Florida in less than three months.

As noted on Camden Chat in recent weeks, names like Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner, Gabriel Ynoa and others figure prominently as the puzzle is put together.

Strategically, Baltimore’s brass must also have an eye on the 2018 trade deadline and free agent period. The first half of the coming 2018 Orioles season – a total of 98 games from March 29 through July 15 – will go a long way toward defining the future of the franchise. Without hyperbole, it is probably the most important period and stretch of games for the franchise this decade.

Four key players – Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Zach Britton and Brad Brach – have contracts that expire at the end of next year, as well as the brain trust – Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette. The Orioles record heading into the All-Star Game in Washington, DC will be the biggest determining factor, but some elements can be known now.

Let’s take a look.

Adam Jones

Since 2011 – Showalter’s first full-season – Adam Jones has always had between 25 and 33 homeruns, 82 and 108 RBI, a .265 and .287 average and played between 137 and 162 games. Mr. Consistency. All of this while being a five-time All-Star, capturing four Gold Glove Awards and patrolling center field as good as anyone in the American League.

2018 will be Adam’s 11th in Baltimore and the path forward for him should be clear. Jones is one contract away from finishing his career as an Oriole and, if it were up to me, having his #10 hang in left field, along with a statue in left-center. Plus – as the numbers show – he is still an extremely valuable everyday player, as well as an incredible team leader and positive influence in the community.

Verdict: Regardless of the O’s record in 2018, Adam Jones should get a new contract to ensure that he finishes his career in Charm City.

Manny Machado

Players of Manny’s caliber don’t come along very often. When they do, teams must take note and not let them get away.

Since 2015 – his age 22 season and covering the last three years – Machado’s offense and defense are unmatched by anyone in baseball, with the possible exceptions of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. He’s a three-time All-Star, won two Gold Gloves and a Platinum Glove. And he is currently only 25 years old. Like the situation with Adam Jones, the question of what to do with Manny Machado moving forward is a no-brainer.

Verdict: Manny Machado is a once in a generation player. The message to Birdland cannot be one that lets him walk and sign with another MLB team or be traded. Regardless of the O’s record in 2018, Manny should get a long-term contract from the team.

Zach Britton

The national media is quick to mention pitchers that improved after leaving Baltimore – Jake Arrieta, Parker Bridwell, and others – but they never, if ever, mention pitchers that came into their own as Orioles. Zach Britton is an example of the latter.

From a mediocre starter in 2011-13, to the best closer in MLB from 2015-17, Britton simply is as good as it gets. 36 saves in 2015, 47 in 2016, combined with ERA’s of 1.92 and 0.54, respectively. In 2017, a year slowed by injuries, Britton notched another 15 saves and posted a sub-3.00 ERA. And as every Oriole fan knows, the stretch in 2016-17 included an American League record 60 in a row.

As good as Britton is, and there is arguably no fireman better, the O’s are financially not a team in position to pay a closer $15 million a season for four to five years. Plus, closers are probably the easiest important position to find someone to get the job done for a price below market value.

Verdict: If the Birds are out of the race in July 2018, trade Britton to a contender for prospects. The return won’t be as big as if they’d traded him in 2017, but it should be adequate. If the Orioles are in the 2018 race, keep Britton and try to get to the post-season. After that, make a qualifying offer and watch him sign elsewhere.

Brad Brach

Since coming over from the San Diego Padres in November 2013, Brach has steadily improved. As things stand today, he was a very good substitute closer for the O’s in 2017, and an excellent setup man in 2015 and 2016. Over four years in Baltimore, Brach is 26-13, 2.74, 21 saves, and 288.2 innings pitched, 305 strikeouts, giving up only 213 hits.

Brach is 31 years old and is about to get paid. Unfortunately, it won’t be in Baltimore.

Verdict: Along the lines of the story with Britton, good relief pitching can too often be found elsewhere and cheaper. And Baltimore doesn’t have an unlimited payroll. If the Orioles are in the 2018 race, keep Brach and try to get to the post-season. If the Orioles are out of the 2018 race, trade Brach to a contender for prospects. He’ll bring something of value back in return.

Buck Showalter

Three post-season appearances in the last six years – a feat not accomplished in Baltimore since the early 1970’s – along with no losing seasons from 2012-2016, arguably doing more with less than any manager in MLB, managing as good a bullpen as anyone, and maintaining a steady hand year after year that is the grind of a season.

When peers and players are polled, after his early career missteps in New York, Arizona and Texas, Buck is consistently cited as one of the best managers in baseball. He excels both tactically and in clubhouse management.

During his career with the Orioles, Showalter has managed 1,181 games for a 622-599 record, .527 winning percentage, and a 6-8 post-season record. O’s fans shouldn’t forget 1998-2011. Don’t be greedy. Showalter is working miracles and everyday he is skipper should be cherished.

Verdict: There’s not much talk about Buck’s future with the team beyond next year. How long will he even want to keep managing? Hopefully, he and the Orioles can work something out to keep him around.

Dan Duquette

Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.” Recognizing that truth, Dan Duquette joined the Orioles before the 2012 season and they’ve proceeded to make the playoffs three times, including an American League East title in 2014, and only one losing season, 2017. His tenure – combined with Showalter as the field general – has undoubtedly been a success.

Like anybody that has been a GM of a MLB team for six seasons, some moves worked and some didn’t. Coming off that lone losing season, with the Orioles starting rotation being full of holes and question marks, it’s easier to dwell on the moves that didn’t work. Duquette deserves credit for the highs and blame for the lows.

Verdict: The bottom line with Duquette is that he’s done a good job overall. He is creative and interesting with roster management. Does that mean he’s the best possible GM going forward? That’s less certain.

In my view, if he can co-exist with Showalter, give DD a new contract. The combination has been undeniably effective. If Peter Angelos must choose one, let Duquette walk, and O’s fans should be excited to follow Buck into battle for the next few years.

Watching the Orioles hot stove, the next few months will be fun preparing for and heading into 2018. And frankly, I’d say the next nine months for the Orioles are more important – and defining of the future – than for any team in MLB.