The fans may be getting restless, but Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette seems determined to prove that patience is a virtue even in the win-now world of professional sports.
Well, he calls it patience.
The naysayers might call it frustrating inactivity.
The Orioles open spring training in about two weeks and the club still has not made good on their intention to add a veteran starting pitcher or, really, any significant free agent who might improve their chances of getting back to the playoffs in 2014.
That doesn't mean that they won't, but Duquette recognizes that the months of waiting while the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox conduct their annual free-agent spending sprees has taken a toll on the recently rejuvenated Orioles fan base.
"I understand that, really, because the fans, they like this ballclub,'' he said. "They like the core players that we have, and they'd like to see us supplement it so we can take the next step. I really appreciate that, and sometimes you can work and things just come together, and sometimes you can work and you don't get the things done that you want to get done. But there are always other opportunities, and we'll have some other opportunities to improve this ballclub."
The questions, however, remain the same.
When and how much?
The only answer so far was obvious long before an estimated 15,000 fans showed up at the Baltimore Convention Center for Orioles FanFest on Saturday. The Orioles have made it clear that they will not in the foreseeable future attempt to compete with the large-market teams in the American League East on an economic level.
"The thing that I want to point out is that Baltimore is going to make a living — the Orioles — by bringing up their best players through their farm system, and our very best players are not going to come to our major league team through free agency,'' Duquette said. "They are going to come through our farm system, and we're going to utilize free agency to supplement our team."
If nothing else, give Duquette credit for being brutally honest. The long-held notion that all that Mid-Atlantic Sports Network revenue was going to kick in and put the Orioles in play for the top stars on the free-agent market was always just a fantasy.
"If people have the expectation that we're going to sign a lot of high-profile free agents and that's going to be the answer, that is not who the Orioles are about,'' Duquette said. "We're going to have a good, solid player development operation. That's going to be the core of our ballclub."
So far, that approach has been successful. Duquette inherited an improving player development system from Andy MacPhail and has focused heavily on building depth at every organizational level. The Orioles will open camp with much of the explosive offensive lineup that carried them to their second straight winning season in 2013, but everyone — including Duquette — knows that it will be the pitching staff that determines whether they get back to the playoffs this year.
He has been monitoring the free-agent market all winter, waiting for the right starter and a capable closer at the right price. There are still a handful of veterans available who would stabilize the rotation, and it seems likely that the Orioles will sign at least one of them, but even when that happens it will be hard to make the case that the club has taken a step forward after shedding starter Scott Feldman and closer Jim Johnson.
Then there is the matter of the window of opportunity that seems to be closing as the likes of Chris Davis and Matt Wieters near free agency, but Duquette apparently does not view that as a reason to pull out all the stops to get to the World Series in the next two years.
"If we have a good farm system, we're going to be good year-in and year-out, and our farm system is making good progress,'' he said. "That's not our assessment. [ESPN's] Keith Law had us 28th a couple of years ago and now we're at 10. When we're in the top five, that's when we'll be cooking. That's when we'll be consistent participants in the postseason."
Forgive the fans for wanting a firmer timetable than that. They've been hearing for a long time that when the Orioles get close enough, the money will be there to push them over the top. So, it's understandable that they're a little impatient with a team that seems reluctant to pay the freight for a No. 3 starter.
Duquette remains unapologetic and largely above the fray. He developed a thick skin during all those years running the Red Sox and seems comfortable in it even as the fans and talkshow types question his — and Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos' — commitment to winning.
"Dan's very perceptive," manager Buck Showalter said. "He understands [that the fans are frustrated], but he also knows what the bottom line is. Just because something is delayed doesn't mean it's denied. It's all about the finished product. I think Dan understands that there is a difference between perception and reality, and knows the finished product is a little ways away."