Five decisions that contributed to the Orioles’ first losing season since 2011

Many decisions — from offseason option pickups and spring training roster cuts to in-season call-ups and lineup juggling — affect how a team finishes, and many choices made by the Orioles didn’t pan out during a 2017 campaign that marked their first last-place division finish since 2011.

The Orioles made the playoffs three times during the previous five seasons by making several shrewd maneuvers, but this year several flawed judgments led to their losing season. Here’s a look at five:

Rushing back Britton

When closer Zach Britton first landed on the disabled list with a left forearm strain in mid-April, the team and Britton shrugged it off as minor, but the peculiar nature of the injury — the strain was in the belly of the forearm, not in the elbow area, which is a rare place for pitchers — should have prompted the Orioles to proceed more cautiously than they did. But Britton returned after just two weeks, and after just two outings, he landed back on the DL, and ultimately the Orioles were without their top reliever for most of the first half of the season. While setup man Brad Brach filled in well, he suffered some growing pains after being thrown into the closer role on the fly, and it forced the Orioles’ other late-inning arms into some uncomfortable roles for half the season. There’s no secret that the relievers were jarred by having no clear roles and having a short six-man bullpen during the season.

Delaying Davis and Trumbo’s drop in the order

The Orioles were just two games back of the second American League wild-card spot on Aug. 11 when manager Buck Showalter dropped sluggers Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo in the batting order, but their extended slumps made the move overdue. During a 47-game stretch from mid-May to the opener of a series in Oakland, Davis hit just .170 with 74 strikeouts in 191 plate appearances, so Davis struggled for far too long of a time to remain the cleanup hitter. Trumbo hit just .212 over a 46-game span going into that game. Granted, the emergence of the recently-acquired Tim Beckham as a leadoff hitter made the move easier, and it further helped the lineup by shifting rookie Trey Mancini into a middle-of-the-order spot, which he had long deserved. Ultimately, it’s clear that the financial commitment made to the two veteran sluggers — more than $200 million over combined 10 years — played a role in the delay.

Sticking with struggling starters too long

The Orioles went into the season with a false sense of security that their veteran starting rotation would be enough to get through the season successfully, and Chris Tillman (8.39 ERA through first 10 starts) and Ubaldo Jiménez (7.17 ERA through first nine outings, including eight starts) went through early-season struggles without much threat to their rotation spots. Plus, left-hander Wade Miley had an 8.41 ERA during a 12-start span in the middle of the season. Sticking with Kevin Gausman, who rebounded from a 6.39 ERA in his first 20 starts, paid off with a strong second half. But putting stock in the three aforementioned veterans — all of whom are likely heading to free agency — didn’t allow the Orioles to look at other arms for the future. An expanded glimpse at Gabriel Ynoa or Miguel Castro, or giving Mike Wright an opportunity to start before he is out of options next spring, might've been worthwhile. As a result, the Orioles have no clear-cut replacements for the veterans over the long haul.

The Hellickson trade​​​​​​​

After making a savvy all-in deal for reliever Andrew Miller at the nonwaiver trade deadline in 2014, the Orioles have been less successful at that juncture, with the acquisitions of Gerardo Parra, Steve Pearce and others providing far less impact. This year, the team dealt for right-hander Jeremy Hellickson to upgrade the rotation. On paper, the trade seemed to make sense because he was a veteran pitcher with a history of going deep into games, pitching in the strike zone, limiting walks and keeping the ball in the yard. But after pitching well in his first two starts with the Orioles, Hellickson compiled an 8.61 ERA over his last eight starts and allowed 13 homers over that span. He went more than six innings just once during that stretch, putting further stress on the bullpen. In retrospect, if the Orioles were going to trade outfielder Hyun Soo Kim, as they did to acquire Hellickson, they would have been better off doing so after they dealt for Seth Smith in the offseason when Kim’s stock was higher coming off 2015.

Not starting Austin Hays sooner​​​​​​​

Austin Hays’ call-up on Sept. 5 was somewhat of a surprise, especially since the team seemed committed to letting him play through Double-A Bowie’s playoff run. But the way the Orioles used him early on was even more baffling, especially as the right field platoon of Seth Smith and Joey Rickard formed an offensive black hole in the first two weeks of September as the team skidded out of playoff contention. The Orioles committed to starting Hays — the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year — regularly beginning Sept. 15, and he showed promise with his on-base capabilities, ability to cover ground defensively and strong arm, while dealing with some growing pains. Among those impressed with Hays is center fielder Adam Jones, who called Hays a “powerful little guy” who “plays the game the right way." It seems Hays will have the opportunity to earn the starting job in right field in 2018, but the Orioles could have accelerated his development by giving him more starts about a week earlier.

 

 

eencina@baltsun.com

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