Dan Rodricks: Vanished faces of a West Virginia boom town

How will these Orioles be remembered?

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette understands that baseball history is littered with good players, good teams and good management, and every year adds a new batch of qualifiers to those lists.

Only one team gets to avoid being lost in that mire each season, though, and that's about all that's left for these Orioles to accomplish. It's challenging for any team to break through to win the World Series, but history has proved it's difficult for clubs on the Orioles' trajectory to join that mix.

Duquette, the architect of this period of prosperity for the club, said he believes what the Orioles are experiencing isn't a plateau. But the path is harder for teams that are trying to climb from just good to great, and he has embraced that by keeping what he believes is a championship core together to take another run at the one thing that has eluded the club.

"We're keeping the core together because they're good," Duquette said. "They're quality players. Our fans like them, and we aim to have a good team every year. So, is this the year that we're going to break through? Well, I think to a person in the organization, no one is satisfied making the playoffs three out of the last five years. That's great. We need to do that again. We'd like to do that again. Our aim is to do that again.

"But there's also a burning desire to advance to a championship. Those are the facts. When you get in the tournament, you have to win. It's pro sports, OK? Nobody remembers the second-place team in professional sports. They don't. This is the big leagues."

What happens this season will go a long way toward determining how baseball will remember these Orioles.

Their credentials of late are easy to rattle off: five straight seasons without a losing record and the most wins in the American League since 2012, erasing the misery of 14 straight sub-.500 years. A division championship and a trip to the American League Championship Series in 2014, plus playoff berths in 2012 and 2016.

But the thing keeping them from jumping from being just well-respected contenders to cementing a place in the game's lore is winning a World Series. And the same history they hope to join shows it's a tougher feat than it seems.

The past few decades — especially since the wild-card era began in 1995 — are littered with teams the Orioles are trying to avoid duplicating, but few have pushed through their perceived plateaus to become champions after long stretches of contention.

The early 2000s "Moneyball" Oakland Athletics are one. From 1999 through 2006, they made the playoffs five times, never won fewer than 87 games, and came away with one postseason series win to show for it.

J.J. Hardy was a part of the final year of the Minnesota Twins' stretch of nine winning records in 10 seasons from 2001 to 2010. During that time, the Twins earned six AL Central championships and one trip to the ALCS.

Duquette doesn't see much difference between the teams who are champions and the teams who are ultimately forgotten. All, he said, have to get into the playoffs, and then it comes down to simply winning.

"Teams have earned a spot in the tournament with a wild-card berth and they've gone on to win the World Series several times. Some of that is timing," he said. "There's been teams crowned world champion that had 88 wins during the season, even 87. And that speaks to the quality of your top pitchers, the capability of your players to perform when it counts, depth of your roster, days off, matchups.

"If you have the right personnel and you get your team tuned up and they're playing well, you get a few breaks, you can win the tournament. It doesn't always go to the best, most talented team. Having said that, you've got to get your team in a position, you've got to execute and also have a little luck."

Still, World Series winners — and even the teams they top — have recently been better categorized as meteors than steady climbers. For the two most recent champions, the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs, the titles followed several years of dreadful baseball.

A whole host of other recent winners, like the three San Francisco Giants teams that won this decade, and the Boston Red Sox of 2007 and 2013, endured too many down years in between for their success to be considered annually sustained.

There are few teams whose example the Orioles can hope to follow on a path toward a championship, though the most recent is the mid-2000s Philadelphia Phillies. They had a .500 record or better in six of seven seasons from 2001 to 2007, with just one playoff appearance, then finally broke through to win the 2008 World Series.

Their plateau was lower than the Orioles', just as the Atlanta Braves — who lost two World Series at the outset of their string of 14 straight division titles before winning their only championship of that era in 1995 — had a higher plateau.

What about the Orioles?

MLB Network analyst John Smoltz, who was on those Braves teams, notes that everything from the playoff structure to the salary structure was different then, not to mention the teams' talents themselves. But he said there's one key that could help the Orioles break through: their stable core.

Any comparable team that has either won or hit its plateau did so with a big contingent of young, cost-controlled players on their first contracts, and those cores didn't stay together once free agency hit.

The Orioles have, at different times, kept Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Darren O'Day and Chris Davis in the fold, and most recently kept Mark Trumbo after his first season with them. Those players' peaks have coincided with the rise of a young core that has for years included infielders Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, plus pitchers Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. The bullpen has experienced turnover, but remained among the game's best.

Of their foundational pieces, only catcher Matt Wieters walked — and only after he extended his stay by a year on a qualifying offer.

"The general feeling back then was we knew we were going to keep most of our players," Smoltz said. "Today, that's not the case. Today, you have more of a 'better do it in a shorter window' mindset."

Such a window exists, of course, with Tillman and Hardy potentially able to leave after this season and the dreaded 2018 offseason bringing free agency for Machado, Jones and closer Zach Britton.

In the interim, Smoltz said, the Orioles "have the core guys and the leadership that allows other pieces to come in and fit right in like they'd been there forever."

"That's not easily done, and with the leadership of an Adam Jones and now the superstar status of a Manny Machado, you can do some of those things," Smoltz said. "You can feel like you can compete with some of the big boys. I mean, they have four players that can pretty much be the best at their position. That's a lot on one team."

And Hardy, whose one season with the Twins in 2010 was the last of their contending years before a mass exodus when the club's core hit free agency, said there's a different vibe around these Orioles than the one he remembered there.

"I think because we have a lot of the same guys that have been here for the last four or five years, we know we're good," Hardy said. "We know what we can do. And then you go out and you get a few extra pieces to try and help to get you over the hump. But I don't think there's any doubt in this clubhouse that we're not going to be right in the mix again this year.

"What Dan and Buck [Showalter] and Peter [Angelos] have done here is try to keep that core group together and just add little pieces. That's probably the answer as to why we've been able to win for the last five years. But to take that next step, I don't know what it's going to take."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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