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Schmuck: All the wrong moves have made playoffs a tough proposition for Orioles

Schmuck: All the wrong moves have made playoffs a tough proposition for Orioles
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, left, talks with manager Buck Showalter as they watch a bullpen session on the second day of pitchers and catchers working out at the team's baseball spring training facility in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 15, 2014. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)

Through the miracle of the expanded wild-card playoff format, the Orioles remain in contention for a spot in the postseason despite the dramatic and deflating downturn that has called into question everything from the current structure of the team to the future composition of the front office.

It's still possible that the Orioles lineup will awaken with a fury and go on a roll long enough to carry them into the one-game wild-card playoff, but it's probably time for both the organization and its fans to face some somber music.

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Mathematical viability is one thing.

Reality is another.

Despite a cold and lonely winter lowlighted by the still-debated decisions to let slugger Nelson Cruz walk after an MVP-caliber season and to let fan-favorite Nick Markakis depart, the Orioles were supposed to be much better than the .500 team that has been teasing us all season. They were supposed to pitch better. They were supposed to score just enough runs. They were supposed to play major league-leading defense.

Well, one out of three ain't good, especially in a supposedly weak American League East where two supposedly flawed contenders have taken control and pretty much eliminated any reasonable possibility of the Orioles defending last year's runaway division title.

The Orioles have been outflanked by the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays at just about every turn, starting with that disappointing winter and carrying right through a July 31 trade deadline by which the Jays added two superstar players and quickly jumped to the top of the standings.

There are still a couple of days to make waiver trades that could impact the postseason, but what you see on the field is what you're probably going to get the rest of the way … and what you've seen lately isn't pretty.

Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette set out to fill the gaps in an OBP-challenged batting order and somehow ended up with a less cohesive offensive attack. In light of that, the reluctance to give Cruz a four-year deal because he's in his mid-30s now looks extremely shortsighted, especially when you factor in the new offensive gap that's going to be created in the likely event that pending free agent Chris Davis signs elsewhere this winter.

Duquette has made some terrific moves over his nearly four-year tenure as executive vice president of baseball operations. But it's starting to look like he sold his mojo for that extra $14 million or so the Orioles refused to spend on the guy who entered the weekend batting .320 with 39 home runs, 82 RBIs and more than a month to go in the regular season.

That might seem like a lot of money to guarantee for a final season during which he will be 38 years old. But when you add up all the 2015 salary the Orioles spent on the outfielders they have released or traded in the past three months and throw what they're paying Gerardo Parra for the final two months of the season, it comes surprisingly close to the number that Cruz will make for each year of his Seattle Mariners contract.

The Orioles tend to stand on principle when it comes to the permissible contract lengths for pitchers and veteran position players. That will be one of the major reasons if they aren't still standing in October.

There will be plenty. The inability of starting pitcher Bud Norris to provide any kind of encore to last year's 15-win performance created instability in the starting rotation, which was magnified by the troubling inconsistency of Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez. The loss of Jonathan Schoop for half of the season to a freak knee injury drained more offensive potential, as have J.J. Hardy's ongoing physical issues.

Even manager Buck Showalter has lost some of his magic touch. He is known for the frequent success of his sometimes unorthodox strategic decisions, but a series of very visible recent moves have gone sideways and contributed to the team's recent struggles.

So, where did it all go wrong?

The obvious answer is that the team wasn't put together very well and Duquette's latest crop of bargain players simply didn't pan out, but there's a lot more to it than that.

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The limited number of optionable players on this year's roster cost Showalter the flexibility he wielded so well the past three years, and the high number of potential free agents clearly has impacted the chemistry of the team.

Norris became grumpy when he pitched his way out of the rotation just months ahead of free agency and the placid Wei-Yin Chen sparked controversy when he (or someone close to him) posted on Twitter that he was unhappy about being sent to the minor leagues for a start. There was also some locker-room lamentation when the club cut loose veteran hitter Delmon Young.

Still, the biggest in-season explanation for the spot the Orioles find themselves in is the glaring lack of offensive consistency and continuity. There might be a handful of players putting up big numbers — most notably a rejuvenated Davis — but opposing pitchers have spent the summer exploiting a stubbornly aggressive Orioles lineup.

This isn't news, but the Orioles scored three runs or fewer in all four games of their season series against a Minnesota Twins team that showed up in Baltimore last weekend ranked 24th in the majors in team ERA. That's just one disturbing example, but it is a fair illustration of what ails the Orioles' homer-centric offense.

Orioles hitters stand in the field and watch patient hitters force O's starters to use up their pitch counts by the middle innings, then go to the plate and stretch out the opposing starter by swinging at anything close early in the count. That approach works enough to make them a dangerous team on any given night, but the rest of the time they're hard to watch.

Duquette has placed a lot of emphasis on creating organizational depth to brighten the future and provide currency in the trade market. But even though some of the club's minor league affiliates are headed for the playoffs, the loss of top pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey to injuries has limited the major league club's ability to improve itself.

Lest anyone forget, Duquette was a hot commodity last winter after the Orioles reached the American League Championship Series. The Blue Jays made a run at him and there was speculation earlier this season that they might renew their interest in making him team president this October.

Now, it looks like the Blue Jays will be busy in October and the Orioles might not finish the season with a .500-plus record, so you would have to assume all bets are off. Duquette is locked into his Orioles contract through 2018 and he isn't exactly a candidate for Major League Executive of the Year this time around.

The window of opportunity that was supposed to be 2015 appears to be slamming shut.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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