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Orioles manager Buck Showalter, left and executive vice president Dan Duquette chat while they watch pitchers throw during spring training at the Orioles' spring facility Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Sarasota, Fla.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, left and executive vice president Dan Duquette chat while they watch pitchers throw during spring training at the Orioles' spring facility Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Sarasota, Fla. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Editor's note: A year after the Orioles won 96 games and their first American League East title since 1997, they can finish no better than .500 and will miss the postseason. During the past few days, The Baltimore Sun has been breaking down what went wrong in 2015 and how to fix it.

To pinpoint exactly when the Orioles' 2015 season veered off the tracks and a 96-win division champion became an also-ran, you first have to go back to before the calendar flipped.

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In early December, three key 2014 Orioles officially signed lucrative four-year deals with other teams. In each instance, executive vice president Dan Duquette had an explanation for letting the player walk.

The club wasn't giving left-handed reliever Andrew Miller closer-type money when it already had Zach Britton in that role. It wasn't extending a fourth year to slugger Nelson Cruz because he'd be 38 in the deal's final season. And it pulled its four-year offer away from outfielder Nick Markakis because of concerns about a neck condition that ultimately required surgery.

Analyzing through a one-year prism, each decision was foolhardy. Miller excelled for the playoff-bound New York Yankees, Cruz put up huge power numbers for the Seattle Mariners and Markakis played in nearly every game with a .370 on-base clip for the Atlanta Braves.

The moves also blew a hole in the Orioles' carefully constructed clubhouse chemistry. During the playoff run in 2014, Cruz emerged as an important veteran presence, especially with younger Latino players. Several Orioles have said privately that there were occasions this year when the club desperately missed the understated leadership, calmness and consistency of Markakis to help stabilize rough patches.

The genesis of the Orioles' 2015 downfall this season, however, wasn't simply because Markakis, Cruz and Miller departed. It's also how the club filled those holes that became so problematic; the replacements were part-timers or fringe big leaguers ill-equipped to take over the roles.

Wesley Wright was not Miller, Travis Snider was not Cruz and Everth Cabrera was not Markakis.

Those three — Duquette's primary offseason additions — were all cut loose during the season. They were supposed to be supplemental pieces. Duquette and Orioles manager Buck Showalter also trumpeted returning players who had shown flashes of talent and would be in for expanded roles: David Lough, Alejandro De Aza and Delmon Young. None lasted the season without being designated for assignment. Furthermore, several veterans who helped facilitate the 2014 postseason run — Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, J.J. Hardy and Steve Pearce to name a few — had down years.

"I think we could have done a lot of things better. We were hoping to build on the success from a year ago and we didn't quite get there," Duquette said. "Some of the guys we brought in didn't perform to the level we had expected. And some of the guys that were already here and have been here for a couple years also didn't perform the way they had established over the years. It's easy to look back, but we didn't have the kind of offensive production needed to sustain a first-division team at a number of positions. And then our starting pitching as a whole … they didn't have the best years this year. So there are a couple areas that we need to improve on going forward."

Making matters more complicated last winter, Duquette was caught up in his own months-long drama, a public dalliance with the Toronto Blue Jays to become the division rival's next president. Duquette tried to sidestep the rumors, but they wouldn't go away and owner Peter Angelos vehemently refused to part with a team executive who was under contract through 2018. Compensation with the Blue Jays was briefly discussed — the Orioles wanted a couple of top Blue Jays prospects for Duquette — but nothing significant materialized.

The common belief among fans — echoed privately by some within the organization — is that Duquette's employment status distracted him from doing his job, made him unavailable for periods of time and cost the Orioles a chance at major roster upgrades. Others in the organization, however, privately say the offseason was business as usual for Duquette and that any players he might have missed on during the Toronto saga were inconsequential. Duquette dismissed conjecture that he wasn't fully engaged in making the Orioles better last offseason.

"My focus has always been on helping the Orioles be a solid, competitive team that can be in the first division and fans can be proud of," Duquette said. "And that has always been a consistent focus of mine."

The reality is that the Orioles were never planning to spend significantly on free agents after the 2014 season. Duquette said as much on multiple occasions. It was a matter of simple economics. Because they had so many three- to six-year players who would be getting raises through arbitration after impressive 2014 campaigns, the Orioles' payroll would increase exponentially just to keep most of its roster intact.

One misperception is that the Orioles didn't spend money on the 2015 team. In reality, their $119 million estimated payroll to begin the year was the highest in team history and ranked 13th of 30 teams in the majors, according to USA Today's salary database.

It's just that the money, in retrospect, wasn't spent wisely. There was talk that the Orioles might trade Norris before he received $8.8 million in an arbitration settlement, or might nontender De Aza, who made $5 million after losing his arbitration hearing. They kept both and had to deal with sunk costs with each.

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Ultimately, the Orioles took a major step backward because they had a flawed roster without a rotation ace and with too many all-or-nothing hitters. The margin for error was minuscule.

When a roster logjam occurred, there was a head-scratching reluctance to risk losing mediocre players to waivers or to send optionable pieces, such as utility infielder and Showalter favorite Ryan Flaherty, temporarily to the minors. The result was that the Orioles rarely had the best players available on their 25-man roster.

The Orioles also had their share of injuries: Catcher Matt Wieters, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, Hardy, Pearce and Gonzalez spent a chunk of time on the disabled list while club leader Adam Jones was banged up throughout the season.

Absent a true No. 1, the rotation regressed after a surprisingly strong 2014, posting the second-worst starting ERA in the American League. Meanwhile, the offense tied for the fifth-lowest on-base percentage and had the fourth-most strikeouts in the majors through 160 games.

But what was perhaps the most startling development this year was that a Showalter-led team just wasn't as fundamentally sound as it had been in the past. There were more mental miscues, more throwing to the wrong base and more examples of bad base-running. Simply put, the Orioles just weren't very crisp in 2015, no matter the extenuating circumstances.

"To be perfectly honest with yourself, myself, I would agree," Showalter said. "There are some things that haven't been [as sharp]. That's a good way to put it. And if you look at the level we performed at last year, it was such a high level.

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"We have to do all those things right. We have to take advantage of every opportunity we get and we didn't," Showalter added. "But it wasn't from lack of effort."

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