Many O's fans were frustrated by the O's seemingly tepid interest in the Prince Fielder pursuit this offseason. However, upon hearing the terms of his contract with Detroit, cooler heads prevailed and O's fans realized that they should thank Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette for not signing him. That said, it does leave a hole in the heart of O's fans, as yet another offseason has passed without a major addition (so far at least). This leaves O's fans with the following question: What now?
To me, the O's have 2 likely directions to go (assuming we've learned anything from the past 14 years or so). Let's tackle the better of the two options first.
Best Case Scenario
In 2012 some of the O's young pitchers show some growth and development, and give the team something to move forward from. Young hitters continue to show annual improvement and dispel some of the critics they've had throughout their young careers. Wieters has improved every year, and Jones has shown he's a premium talent in CF (especially if you don't put a lot of faith into his UZR ratings, which I don't).
Young guys like Dylan Bundy, Manny Machado, Parker Bridwell, etc. continue to develop and are beginning to push their way into the conversation.
Heading into 2013 the O's peruse the Free Agent market and make attempts to sign impact players. Cole Hamels and Zach Greinke are the most likely 'Aces' to be available as Matt Cain is almost assured a contract extension in San Francisco. Perhaps Hamels and Greinke aren't cost-effective for the club and they begin to pursue potential trades. Targets could include Tim Lincecum or Felix Hernandez, but would more likely be for younger, up-and-coming pitchers with a few years of control left. Hitters are also an area where the team could improve, and targets could include David Wright (who could be a FA pending an option) or Joey Votto.
If the O's follow this plan to success, and some suggest this might be the path they take, it very well could follow the path that other teams like the Rangers have taken. However, this is no slam dunk by any means, and things could go very very differently.
Worst Case Scenario
2012 is merely 2011 rehashed, and the O's young stars continue hinting that they'll never become the stars O's fans had hoped for. Guys like Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta don't develop as the organization would like and the team realizes competing in the stacked AL East, even with an extra wildcard isn't likely.
Unfortunately for O's fans, stories like this will become all too common. The organization, realizing the window to compete comes further in the future, will have to maximize its return on the young players and get a new bunch of prospects to give it another go. This new group will feature Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy, and will likely include stars from trades involving guys like Matusz, Tillman, Jones, Wieters and Hardy. This is obviously not what O's fans want to see, but it's possible, so you can't ignore it as a possibility.
What's Gonna Happen?
Honestly I think it will be a little bit of both. Some of the young guys like Wieters and Jones have show that they are developing each year and getting better. Others have struggled. I think that the team can put itself in position to fight for a wild card spot in 2013 or 2014 if a few things break the right way and the front office continues to try to improve the player development department. It's not going to be easy, but the O's have young impact players, and that's the best place to start.