BALTIMORE — There is a sense of urgency surrounding the Baltimore Orioles as they enter the 2018 season.
For several years now, the Orioles have operated under manager Buck Showalter with a core group of players led by Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Zach Britton.
All three of those stars, in addition to Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette, are in the final year of their contract.
Knowing that significant change is coming for a team with three playoff appearances in the last six seasons, the Orioles are preparing to make one final thrust at greatness.
"We all understand that you're not going to play with the same group of guys forever," first baseman Chris Davis said. "We've done a lot of great things with this team, but we haven't reached the top yet. That's still the goal for each and every guy in here."
Davis signed a 7-year, $161 million contract in 2016. The deal, designed to keep a playoff-quality club intact, could make it difficult for the cash-conscious Orioles to retain Machado and/or Jones.
Though well aware of the team's uncertain future, Machado intends to help Baltimore rebound from last season's disappointing 75-87 record and last-place finish in the AL East.
"We're here to win, no matter if we're leaving tomorrow, if we're leaving the next day or if we're leaving a year from now or two years," said Machado, a three-time All-Star.
Duquette explored a possible trade for Machado during the offseason, but decided that in this make-or-break season it was best to keep the 25-year-old.
"We think the strongest option is for Manny to be on the ball club," Duquette said.
Some pivotal areas for the 2018 Orioles, who open on March 29 against the Twins:
Starting rotation: Baltimore unloaded Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley during the offseason after compiling the worst ERA (5.70) of any starting rotation in the big leagues. The late addition of free agent right-hander Alex Cobb, along with the February acquisition of free agent righty Andrew Cashner, adds stability to a staff that was in flux. Signed to a four-year contract on Wednesday, Cobb takes some of the pressure off young right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, who no longer face the burden of carrying the rotation.
Slugger slump: The Orioles have long relied on the long ball to win, and last season their most notable sluggers failed to deliver. Davis batted .215, struck out 193 times and hit only 26 homers after clubbing 47 in 2015 and 38 in 2016. Mark Trumbo hit only 23 home runs, fewer than half his major league-leading total of 47 in 2016. If they can't rebound, another losing season appears inevitable.
New closer: Britton is likely lost for the year after tearing his Achilles tendon during the offseason, so the role of closer goes to Brad Brach, who converted 18 of 24 save opportunities last year while Britton missed time with elbow and knee injuries. "I just kind of got caught up in being the closer for a little bit there, worried about when Zach was coming back and what my role was going to be, as opposed to just going out there and pitching," said Brach, who now owns the job for the foreseeable future.
Best case: It's a lot of ask, but if the Orioles get decent pitching from their rotation and the offense lives up to expectations, a playoff berth is possible. Jonathan Schoop had a breakthrough year that resulted in his first All-Star appearance, and Baltimore could sure use a suitable encore from their second baseman. By moving Machado to shortstop and Tim Beckham to third base, the Orioles expect their infield defense to make the pitching staff look better.
Worst case: Because the Orioles lack depth, injuries to key players could prove costly. Also, if the revamped rotation falters, Brach can't hold a lead or the offense can't go deep, Baltimore has no chance to compete in the AL East. If the team is struggling in July, it's quite possible Duquette will consider dealing away Machado before the non-waiver trade deadline.