NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What the Baltimore Orioles accomplished last season was attributable to a certain amount of magic. It wasn't all magic, mind you. When it comes to building a winner, there always is science, there always is effort and execution, there always is fortitude of both a mental and physical sort. But when you jump from 69 wins to 93, when you post the best one-run record in the modern era, when you play 18 extra-inning games and win 16, yeah, there's a magic act in there somewhere.
So what do you do when the act (and the encore that was the 2012 postseason) is over? What is the postscript to the pleasant surprise the O's bestowed upon us this past season? "It will be different from the surprise factor, I guess," manager Buck Showalter said. "For who, though? Who is it a surprise to? Who was this year a surprise to? It wasn't to our players. It wasn't at all. They weren't walking around going, 'Wow!'" No, the wows were reserved for the rest of us. Those of us who looked at that O's Opening Day roster and admittedly had no ability to envision their run to the AL's second Wild Card. Careful, then, with the conclusions about the O's. They are a case study in how a contender can be built under the radar. Subtlety still exists, even in an environment such as these Winter Meetings, where every hint of a move is sent out from a smartphone and abundantly analyzed by the masses. Dan Duquette arrived a year ago and built a winner in, frankly, unusual ways. Several years ago, it was envisioned that the next competitive Orioles team would be built around Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta. But the latter three of that group endured injuries and/or inconsistency, and so the O's found themselves scrambling for help elsewhere. Duquette flipped Jeremy Guthrie and got Jason Hammel, who, injury issues aside, was one of the O's most dependable arms. International free-agent Wei-Yin Chen exceeded all expectations. Angels and Red Sox castaway Miguel Gonzalez signed as a Minor League free agent and became a lynchpin. Nate McLouth and Endy Chavez became important patchwork pieces, and Manny Machado was promoted well ahead of schedule. It only took 178 roster moves, but the O's stayed afloat. Their ability to always find the right guy for the right spot at the right time was remarkable, in retrospect. And when you keep the O's payroll realities in mind, you understand that the ability to identify undervalued assets and turn them into key contributors has to remain a backbone to the way the O's operate. "With the movement we had and the opportunity that we gave people," said Showalter, "being able to tell people things and then follow through with it, we have had a lot of interest from some the peripheral things -- the six-year free agents, some things that don't normally appear on the radar screen of headlines, but, as you saw last year, really play into some successes." What happens below the surface, though, doesn't stir souls this time of year. If fans of the O's are looking for big moves in the wake of last year's successes, they might wind up disappointed. Sure, the O's enjoyed some added attendance revenue at year's end. And sure, their reputation in the industry is worlds better now than it was last winter, when Duquette seemed to be the only guy willing to take the GM job. But with all the in-house raises about to be put in place, the O's don't have the payroll flexibility to be major players in free agency. Their payroll for 2013 could trend north of $100 million without adding anybody of serious monetary impact, because Markakis and Jones are getting big bumps, per the terms of their extensions, and Wieters, Hammel, Chris Davis and Jim Johnson are all up for arbitration. "If we're going to keep Wieters and Jones and Markakis and these guys, you've got to know who you are," Showalter said. "That's why the farm system is so important." The farm system and, more pressingly, the trade market, because the latter is the only place the O's seem eligible to significantly improve the output of an offense that ranked seventh in the AL in OPS and ninth in runs scored. Various reports have linked the O's to the Nationals' Mike Morse (if the Nats are able to re-sign Adam LaRoche) and the Royals' Billy Butler. It would make a tremendous amount of sense for the O's to dangle their starting pitching depth in front of the Twins' faces and try to land left fielder Josh Willingham. The prevailing sense around the O's is that something is going to happen on the trade front, because the need for a bat is too obvious and the market value of the type of starting pitching they possess is too high. But the other, overriding sense is that the O's are going to have to continue to stock their system in shrewd, under-the-radar ways. And they're going to have to approach 2013 with the knowledge that, while the record in close contests is likely unrepeatable, the mental fortitude it took to put that mark together is going to have to be relied upon once again. "There was a different look in a lot of our guys' eyes [in October]," Showalter said. "Now that they've got a taste of it, I feel real confident that they'll continue to pay the price to do the things it takes to get there." Bring on the magic.