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After season ends, Orioles' pending free agents set sights on the future

As the Orioles prepared to leave the visitors' clubhouse Wednesday night after being swept in the American League Championship Series, they understood the harsh reality of today's industry: This group, in its entirety, will never again be together as a team.

"That part stinks," said left-hander Andrew Miller, one of several pending free agents on the Orioles' ALCS roster. "I've made a lot of good friends here and, hopefully, I'll get a chance to be with a lot of them for a lot longer. But you never know what happens."

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Miller, who emerged in September and October as the most effective reliever in an outstanding Orioles bullpen, will be a highly coveted free agent and could cash in this winter. He's not the only key member of a 96-win club that could play elsewhere in 2015. The Orioles also could lose 2014 Most Valuable Oriole Nelson Cruz, fan favorite Nick Markakis, pinch hitter extraordinaire Delmon Young and reserve catcher Nick Hundley, among others.

It'll be a challenging offseason for executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter.

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Even if the Orioles add no one, team owner Peter G. Angelos' payroll conceivably could balloon into the $150 million stratosphere simply with the re-signing of a pending free agent or two and built-in raises for the club's bevy of arbitration-eligible players. It would be uncharted territory for an organization that has been in the bottom half of the league in spending for most of the last 15 years.

"I know one thing about it is we are going to have a competitive team next year," said center fielder Adam Jones, who is signed through 2018. "To say that everybody in this clubhouse right now is going to be here, we know that's not going to happen. That's just the business of the game. But I'm pretty sure Dan, Peter and Buck are gonna [have] the meeting of the minds, and sit down and evaluate what needs to be done."

With shortstop J.J. Hardy already agreeing to a contract extension, the next priority is likely Markakis, whose value to the team goes beyond his right-field defense and steady offense. Drafted in the first round in 2003, Markakis has been with the major league club since 2006. He's rising up the Orioles' all-time lists in various categories and is a quiet but respected team leader.

After Wednesday's loss, Markakis, 30, didn't talk much about his future.

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"You never know. Baseball is a funny game," Markakis said. "Anything could happen. I'll take some time off, and we'll see where that ball goes."

Markakis and the club have a mutual option at $17.5 million for next year that includes a $2 million buyout. The club is expected to exercise the buyout and then attempt to negotiate an extension. Jones, who has spent more time in the majors with Markakis than any other Orioles player, said he doesn't envision his buddy playing elsewhere.

"I think there is going to be something that gets done," Jones said. "He's an Oriole. He's not anything else. He's an Oriole. He knows that. His family knows that. If you cut him open, it would probably bleed a little orange. To see him with some other uniform would be crazy. But I don't foresee that happening."

Cruz's situation is a little more complicated. He is 34 years old and has dealt with myriad injuries in the past. But he was healthy in 2014 and was the Orioles' most consistent offensive performer, leading the major leagues with 40 home runs. Like Markakis, Cruz has said repeatedly that he wants to stay with the Orioles, but he's going to command a hefty contract as arguably the best power hitter available.

Cruz signed a one-year, $8 million deal in February after he couldn't land a multiyear contract for a variety of reasons, including his connection to the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal and the fact that his signing was attached to a draft pick.

He'll have to deal with that situation again this winter because the Orioles are expected to make him a qualifying offer of $15.3 million. If he rejects it, then the Orioles will receive a supplemental first-round pick if Cruz signs elsewhere, and the team that signs Cruz will have to forfeit either its first- or second-round pick. That again, potentially, could hamper his free-agent market, though Cruz should be in high demand.

If the Orioles were to lose Cruz, they'd have more reason to re-sign Young, who was a part-time designated hitter and left fielder and thrived as a pinch hitter. Signed to a minor league deal this winter, Young, only 29, could be in line for a multiyear contract somehwere. The Orioles would like him back, but it's more likely that Duquette will try to find his next player like Young on baseball's scrap heap.

They'd also like to re-sign Miller, but he probably priced himself out of the Orioles' range for a setup man by dominating after his trade from the Boston Red Sox in July. He was fantastic in the postseason, and it would be surprising if he's not closing games somewhere in 2015.

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One possibility is the Detroit Tigers, who drafted him out of college. The Tigers front office watched this October as Miller steamrolled Detroit's hitters and the Orioles bashed its bullpen in the AL Division Series.

"I want to be somewhere that wins," Miller said. "These [playoff] games are as fun as it gets, and this spotlight is what you ask for as a player. Nothing is better than this, and these guys are going to be in these games for a while."

The Orioles hold a $5 million option on Hundley, which they won't exercise. The Orioles liked his game-calling skills and professionalism, but their need at backup catcher can be filled more cheaply by rookie Caleb Joseph when Matt Wieters returns from injury next spring.

Two other contract options sure to be picked up are starter Wei-Yin Chen's ($4.75 million) and reliever Darren O'Day's ($4.25 million). Some other pending free agents on the 40-man roster — infielders Kelly Johnson and Alexi Casilla, pitcher Joe Saunders — are expected to re-enter the market.

The Orioles also will be facing some interesting arbitration decisions. Pitchers Brian Matusz ($2.4 million in 2014) Bud Norris ($5.3 million), Tommy Hunter ($3 million) and even infielder Chris Davis ($10.35 million) all will get raises through arbitration — and, in Norris' case, a significant one. It's possible one or more could be a roster casualty if payroll becomes an issue.

The bottom line is the Orioles' season is over, and 2015 preparation is underway. The hope within the clubhouse is that next year's team will look as much like the 2014 one as possible.

"We put together a little run of success here. And hopefully we have the resources to bring some of these guys back," O'Day said. "These are the guys that got us here. We have some smart guys [in the front office]. They'll figure something out."

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