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Orioles owe it to fans to take their best shot

The Orioles shipped two-time 50-save closer Jim Johnson to Oakland.Rob Carr/Getty Images/File

Give Dan Duquette some money to spend and he'll come up with Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. His choices among big-name players usually work out. That was the case in Boston, but he has not been able to use those skills in Baltimore.

Think about it. The Orioles have an excellent manager in Buck Showalter. An excellent general manager in Duquette. They have really good core players in Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, and Chris Davis. They have a couple of young pitchers — Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy (who underwent Tommy John surgery and won't be available until the summer) — who could become the 1-2 punch the Orioles need in their rotation.


They had a two-time 50-save closer in Jim Johnson, but he's one piece of the core that's already been chipped off because of cost constraints, traded to Oakland.

What's missing? A committed owner.

How in good conscience can you allow a team to have 14 consecutive losing seasons, and then when you finally break through in 2012 with 93 wins because of that strong young core, you handcuff baseball operations from getting that team to the next level?

Baseball has its windows, its opportunities, and the Orioles are in one right now. They dropped back last season because significant upgrades (Bud Norris and Scott Feldman aren't No. 1 or 2 starters) couldn't be made. Wieters and Davis could be gone in free agency by 2015. A big chunk of the core could be gone.

No teams want to give up draft picks to sign top free agents, but if you're one of those teams that needs to live in the here and now, you may have to. And for Baltimore, now is that time.

The Orioles reside in the American League East. The World Series champion Red Sox are in the same division. The Rays are usually very good, but they get only so far before they don't have the resources to go farther. The Yankees have been very active this offseason after winning 85 games and finishing out of the playoffs.


So, if you're the Orioles, what on Earth are you doing? Apparently, nothing.

Duquette traded Johnson to Oakland, a team that is going for it, realizing their window is now. Duquette settled for Jemile Weeks and a minor leaguer in return, but the big issue was not having to pay Johnson up to $10 million in arbitration.

Then, Duquette made the right call on a cheaper but still effective closer in Grant Balfour, who had his best season in 2013 with 38 saves for the Athletics. However, once the Orioles looked at the medical reports on Balfour, they backed out because of concerns over his pitching shoulder. Balfour was lights-out last season, and going on 36 years old, of course there are going to be things in the MRIs that don't look right. But do you just walk away from a deal because of it?

What's suspicious is that owner Peter Angelos has a history of backing out of deals when the medicals don't look so good, including deals for Mike Lowell, Aaron Sele, and Xavier Hernandez.

If I'm an Orioles fan, I'm not too happy. You can't have more than a decade of losing, expect your fan base to endure that, and just when you are ready to compete you pull back the reins. Don't you, in good conscience, extend yourself with payroll for a couple of years just to see if you can win the AL East, the pennant, and make it to the World Series? Your attendance is up, your TV deal is greater, so why the Scrooge-like behavior by an owner who should be excited to go for it?


There are free agent pitchers out there such as Matt Garza and Ervin Santana, and deals to be made for young veterans such as Jeff Samardzija and David Price that would greatly improve the Orioles' roster.

They are one starter, one closer, and one hitter away from competing seriously for the AL East title. So, why are they allowing this opportunity to slip away?

If I'm Showalter and Duquette, this isn't what I signed up for. Is the owner banking on the fact that it's difficult to repeat so the Red Sox won't be as good? Or that Tampa Bay will fall short again? Or that the Yankees don't have enough pitching and the Orioles could sneak in with minimum payroll upgrades?

The Orioles have been the most frustrating team to follow this offseason. They could use Kendrys Morales in the middle of their order as a designated hitter.

They could use one of the aforementioned pitchers at the head of their rotation and they could use Balfour to be their closer after the Johnson trade.


Duquette is following orders. He may have to go with what he's got, which means Tommy Hunter, a very good setup guy, could wind up being the closer. Angelos will likely make Duquette go after a cheap hitter and settle for a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

Maybe the moon and stars will align and the Orioles will rise up and win. But if you own this franchise, don't you have to prove to your fans that you want to win?

There's still time, but the available inventory is starting to run low.

The Orioles, with a few fixes, could be exciting and fun to watch. But right now they'll have no help from the person who writes the checks.


Hall of Fame voting full of difficult choices

Hall of Fame voting has presented new challenges this year, and likely will for the next three years as an abundance of worthy candidates, coupled with solid old candidates and PED users who some vote for and others don't, have created a logjam and tough choices.

My ballot could have extended to 14 choices easily, but the 10 I voted for were: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, and Craig Biggio. In the future, I would like to vote for Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Tim Raines, and Jeff Bagwell. I will vote for Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Randy Johnson next season. And Ken Griffey Jr. the year after that.

Every year there's such criticism of the voting. It's an election. Once you've met the qualifications of covering baseball for a recognized publication or website for 10 straight seasons, you earn the right to vote for whomever you want. If you want to vote for no one, that's your right. If you want to vote for 10 every year, that's also your right. If you feel a PED user is a Hall of Famer, and you feel he's one of the greatest to ever play the game — as I do with Bonds and Clemens — then you vote for him.


There are 10 spots on the ballot. Since I qualified for voting in 1993, the 10-name ballot had never been an issue until now.

There's a movement to see if the Hall of Fame would consider unlimited voting or the addition of a few more spots. But in doing that, are we simply reacting to a 2-3-year logjam? That's what a committee of the Baseball Writers Association of America will soon begin discussing.

One thing I feel should happen is to change the voting pool a bit and allow broadcasters in. They, like many BBWAA members, watch, attend, and are around players on a daily basis. They understand the game. They should be held to the same criteria — broadcast for 10 straight years.

Apropos of nothing

1. Should the Red Sox get into the Masahiro Tanaka hunt? The 25-year-old Rakuten Golden Eagles righthander, who was 24-0 in the regular season in 2013, was posted and teams have begun to bid the new maximum $20 million fee. The Red Sox are the least mentioned big-market team, but don't be surprised if they quietly slip into this. One American League scout suggested it's the perfect time for the Red Sox to strike. "They have veteran pitchers in the final year or two years remaining on their deals," he said. "They'll be clearing out a lot of payroll soon. I know they feel they have good young pitching on the horizon, but Tanaka should be a very good No. 2 or No. 3 starter on any staff. I would think with their emphasis on pitching, they would get into it." The Yankees, Cubs, Rangers, and Dodgers should be the most aggressive. The Angels, Phillies, Royals, and Blue Jays will get into it. Tanaka is going to get the highest contract ever given to a Japanese pitcher. Do the Red Sox take a pass because of Daisuke Matsuzaka? "I don't think that can enter their thinking. I'm sure they would have gone after Yu Darvish in retrospect," said one National League GM.

2. Right now, the one team I know I'm picking to go far is Oakland. Billy Beane and David Forst have been aggressive in filling in some big pieces this offseason, including Jim Johnson. They recognize that their time is now.

3. Predicting big comeback seasons for Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. Hamilton's overall game picked up toward the end of last season. He will also be playing left field full time, lessening the wear and tear. Pujols just needs to be healthy, and it appears he's on his way.

4. The best center fielder you've even seen? The death of Paul Blair this past week reminded me that he was truly one of the greatest. He played so shallow and yet was able to gracefully go back on balls. A pleasure to watch.

5. It's tough to repeat, but not sure the Yankees, Rays, Orioles, and Blue Jays have done enough to challenge the Red Sox.

6. Upgrades by the Angels and Mariners are going to make the AL West interesting in 2014.

Updates on nine

1. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, free agent — A few GMs I spoke with recently feel the Yankees may wind up with Jimenez, even if they land Masahiro Tanaka. "He had an excellent second half, has great stuff, and he has the type of personality that would fit New York," one GM said. "He doesn't let things get to him. He's good at shrugging off things and turning the page."

2. Nelson Cruz, RF, free agent — Cruz remains the best available free agent among position players, but his demand of four years at $75 million has turned off teams. While other PED guys such as Jhonny Peralta are still getting top dollar, Cruz, who more relies on his power, is of greater concern for teams who feel that being off the stuff could lessen his power numbers. "The feeling is Peralta is more of a pure hitter than a power hitter, and less risky," said a National League GM. "Cruz hits for more power. Someone will sign him and take the chance, but Melky Cabrera is always in the back of your mind." The Blue Jays last year signed Cabrera to a two-year deal after his PED suspension, and his game — which was hitting and not power — went south as injuries began to crop up.

JOHN LACKEY: Team-friendly contractJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

3. John Lackey, RHP, Red Sox — Lackey's name has come up consistently this winter, but the Red Sox aren't motivated to deal him. There may come a point when that changes, though his contract is team-friendly with a $15.25 million outlay and only $500,000 in a team option for 2015. Yet if the Red Sox ever got involved in Tanaka, a veteran pitcher or two would likely go. Lackey could bring salary relief this season and also allow the Sox to fill another need and remain under the luxury tax.

4. A.J. Pierzynski, C, Red Sox — The Red Sox did their homework on Pierzynski since there was a reputation that preceded him. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and his special adviser, Dennis Gilbert, swear by him. Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves is also a big fan. Said one former teammate, "He'll let you know exactly how he feels. Sometimes that rubs you the wrong way. A.J. will not hold anything back. Maybe it comes off a little strong, but we're all big boys. If you can't take it you shouldn't be in the big leagues. He's passionate."

5. Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Yankees — It'll be interesting to see whether in the next few weeks the Yankees can move him. With Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Alfonso Soriano, and Vernon Wells also in a crowded outfield, Ichiro, who can still play defense but can't hit at the level he used to, could be a functional player for someone. The Giants always remain a possibility.

6. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford — The Dodgers may still deal one of them before the start of the season. As teams see where Kemp's rehab is after shoulder and ankle surgeries, that could heat up in spring training. Ethier could also be in demand, but the Dodgers want to see what they have in Kemp before trading away their excess. Still, the Dodgers will be an intriguing trade partner for some team before all is said and done.

7. Austin Romine, C, Yankees — With Brian McCann aboard and Francisco Cervelli the backup, Romine is very much available. Romine finds himself in the same spot as the Red Sox' Ryan Lavarnway, with really no business going back to Triple A. With Lavarnway, there's at least light at the end of the tunnel with Pierzynski and David Ross in the last year of their contracts. Lavarnway is also being pushed by Christian Vazquez and Romine by Gary Sanchez.

8. Johan Santana, LHP, free agent — Santana is getting closer to making a decision on a minor league deal with a team. There's been some speculation about the Twins since Santana still resides in Fort Myers, Fla., where the Twins have spring training. The Red Sox, who also train in Fort Myers, passed. But a small-market team such as the Astros could also have some interest. Santana is just trying to get back pitching and prove himself again.

9. Roy Oswalt, RHP, free agent — Oswalt would like to pitch again, but some teams remain skeptical about his commitment. "He's an intriguing name and it wouldn't shock me if the old Roy comes out and pitches well again, but lately everything's been on Roy's terms and I think teams are turned off by that," said a National League GM. "But the pitching is at a premium, so guys like Oswalt, Johan Santana, Mark Mulder, Carl Pavano, they'll all get looks from teams hoping they can insert a veteran like that to the back end of the rotation when injuries occur."

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — "From Aug. 1 on last season, the ERA leaders were: Zack Grienke (1.49), Andrew Cashner (1.70), Clayton Kershaw (1.73), and Ubaldo Jimenez (1.92)." . . . Also, "From Aug. 1 to the end of the regular season, for batters with at least 150 plate appearances, Daniel Nava led the majors with a .356 batting average." . . . Tomorrow, wish A.J. Pierzynski a happy 37th birthday.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.