At the dawn of the Buck Showalter era five years ago, a breakeven season would have cause for celebration in Baltimore.
Now, it just feels empty.
After 14 losing seasons, shouldn’t four consecutive non-losing seasons—for the first time in 30 years—feel better?
That’s because Showalter has succeeded in one of his most important tasks — raising expectations — and after an unlikely wild card team in 2012, a competitive one in 2013, and an AL East winner a year ago, a .500 team just doesn’t make it.
The Orioles had to win five straight games against Toronto and New York to close at the break-even point, just the second time in team history it finished there.
But, the fans who attended Sunday’s windy farewell knew all too well that big changes are in store.
After the first two winning seasons, the Orioles were able to keep their core of Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters together and had a young budding star in Manny Machado.
Markakis is gone, and now Davis and Wieters are expected to go, and fans aren’t pleased about it.
Davis is in an enviable position. Not yet 30, he’s a free agent in a year where there aren’t many quality first basemen available, let alone ones with two home run titles.
The Orioles are faced with an awful decision. If they do everything in their power to sign Davis, they’ll likely sacrifice the ability to add other stars and complementary pieces. They may also lose the chance to extend Machado, who’s still three years away from free agency, but may be worth more than Davis.
After Markakis and Nelson Cruz left, fans wondered how the Orioles would be able to replace them. A popular retort was that Davis, Machado and Wieters would all be back, happy and healthy.
That was mostly true. Davis nearly doubled his home run output of 2014. Machado hit 35 and became a much more selective hitter, but Wieters, due to a limited schedule in what was essentially a rehab year, didn’t produce what was expected.
While the losses of Cruz and Markakis were crucial, they also pointed to a lineup much too dependent on power. Machado is now a dangerous all-around hitter, and Jonathan Schoop is showing signs that he could be, too.
But, there were too many times when the team seemingly waited on the home run.
MORE ORIOLES: Showalter noncommital about coaches returning
The players that Dan Duquette and Showalter hoped would adequately fill in for Cruz and Markakis—Alejandro De Aza, Travis Snider and Delmon Young—failed, and were all gone long before season’s end.
Steve Pearce failed to follow up on his surprising 2015, though he showed some late power, and Duquette was forced to try and replace Markakis at the trading deadline with Gerardo Parra, another pending free agent.
Davis, Parra, Pearce, Wieters, Wei-Yin Chen and Darren O’Day are all free agents, and if even two of those return, it would be a major victory.
While the club continued to hit home runs, it continued to strike out at an alarming rate, and the on-base percentage, which has been a concern of Duquette ever since he arrived four years ago, dropped yet again—to .307.
Those issues all could have been forgotten had the starting pitching maintained its 2014 excellence.
While Chen continued to almost always provide creditable starts, and Ubaldo Jimenez rebounded to somewhat justify their investment in him, the others fell back.
None fell farther than Bud Norris, who led the team in wins with 15 in 2014, and won just two before his July 31 jettisoning.
Chris Tillman, who was the team’s best pitcher in 2013 and 2014, had a middling year, and Miguel Gonzalez stumbled, too.
The Orioles are hoping for more from Tillman, Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman, who turned in a few excellent late season starts.
All will have to be much better in 2016.
Of all the free agents, Chen is the least likely to return. The Orioles are betting, and I think they’re right, that they got a four-year bargain with Chen, and that re-upping him isn’t wise. He earned $15.47 million for the past four years, and in his next contract, he could average that on a four-year deal.
Even if O’Day leaves, which will probably happen, the Orioles may be somewhat protected with the emergence of Brad Brach and Mychal Givens to set up for Zach Britton.
Duquette and Showalter will address the 2015 season and what they think lies ahead for the next few months this afternoon.
One area that must be immediately addressed is the uncertainty surrounding the coaching staff, which Showalter has repeatedly said, is the best he’s had. None are under contract for 2016.
The off-season begins now.
MORE ORIOLES: Mancini wins Orioles top minor league player award