BALTIMORE — Leave it to Adam Jones to cut past any bromides about staying in the moment.
“It is going to be dicey to see what goes on in the next year, year and a half,” said the Baltimore Orioles’ all-star center fielder. “It will be real interesting this offseason, to be honest, because you have people being free agents and going into free agency [the following year].”
Maybe it seems premature to fret about the future when the present seems so promising for the 2014 Orioles, whose combination of power, sound glove work and young pitching evokes memories of past contenders .
Fans waited 15 years for their team to be competitive, and this is the payoff. But as is the case for many small- and mid-market franchises, the window to enjoy success might be narrow.
Four key everyday players — Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters — are scheduled to reach free agency after this season or next. Though the club has expressed interest in re-signing Davis and Wieters before they reach free agency after the 2015 season, both are represented by agent Scott Boras, who made his reputation seeking the most money possible on the open market.
Some analysts have already begun talking about the pair as midseason trade candidates should the Orioles get off to a slow start. And the future uncertainty has created an urgent interest in winning.
“The time is now, right?” said Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ executive vice president.
It seems so. At the dawn of spring training, the team suddenly pounced on signing hard-throwing starter Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz for a combined $58 million.
“The second these guys came into the clubhouse, there was a whole new buzz,” says Chris Tillman, who led the club in wins last season.
With Jimenez bolstering the team’s weakest area, its starting rotation, and Cruz added to a lineup that led the majors in home runs in 2013, the Orioles seem like the contender fans so desperately wanted.
“I think they’re in the mix,” says John Hart, former general manager of the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers and now an MLB Network analyst. “The fact that they were willing to give up draft picks to get the guys they needed leads me to believe they’re doing what they can to get back to the postseason right now. I think they’ve done a terrific job.”
For much of the Orioles’ 14-year run of losing seasons that ended in 2012, the club was not merely bad but perpetually in flux. Fans never got to bond with a core group of players; only second baseman Brian Roberts felt like any kind of constant.
That has changed in recent years, with Davis, Hardy, Markakis, Wieters and Jones forming a steady backbone and other standouts, such as Manny Machado and Tillman, joining them from the farm. This is no mercenary band of free agents. It’s a group of players either developed by the Orioles or acquired through savvy trades. Fans have watched each player grow into his current role; if this group does disintegrate at the end of next season, it will hurt in a different way than the lost seasons of the 2000s.
News on contract negotiations for Hardy, Davis and Wieters has been scarce.
“They’re part of our team, and we’d like for them to be a part of our team for a long time, but we are preparing our team to be competitive for this year,” said Duquette, who admitted that the Jimenez and Cruz signings were all about chasing a championship in 2014.
“When ’15 gets here, we’ll worry about ’15, but we’re trying to put as many resources into the 2014 team as we can so we can be competitive,” Duquette said. “We made the choice to trade away one of our picks to get [starter] Bud Norris, who won 10 games. We made another choice to give away another one of our draft picks for Ubaldo Jimenez, who won 13 games. Our focus is on ’14.”