Orioles beat writer Jon Meoli talks about the Orioles' top storylines of 2016. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
A year when the Orioles hit heaps of home runs and earned a playoff berth ends Saturday, leaving a year's worth of memories — some good, some bad — for everyone to mull over.
This Orioles' season had its share of drama, intrigue and downright fun, but most everything fit into a few tidy storylines.
With 2016 wrapping up, here are the top 10 Orioles storylines that played out over the calendar year, along with some required reading if you want to freshen up on how it all went down in the moment.
10. Veteran starters disappoint throughout
In a rotation that caused headaches for the entire season, there seemed to be a veteran or two not carrying his weight at all times. Whether it was the slow start and subsequent shelving of Yovani Gallardo with shoulder soreness, the three-month disaster that was Ubaldo Jimenez's first half, or the uninspiring performance of trade-deadline acquisition Wade Miley, there wasn't much to smile about for that group.
Jimenez spent essentially two months out of the rotation, and the other two veterans were skipped at times down the stretch. In all, it contributed to a team that was never quite comfortable with its starting rotation. And if you're looking for a reason why the baseball world doubted the Orioles' prospects, it was in no small part because of that.
The clichés about Opening Day signifying a new beginning are too apt to leave out. Before that warm April afternoon turned rainy, Chris Tillman was the best version of himself anyone could imagine, striking out five of six batters before the weather ended his day. Through the first month or so of the season, he was a stud. By becoming comfortable with his slider and mixing that in against right-handed batters, Tillman had yet another weapon to help him become the front-line starter the Orioles badly needed.
A shoulder problem contributed to his second half being spoiled a bit, but he still finished with a 3.77 ERA and erased all doubts that his 2015 struggles were anything but health related. Another year like 2016 will mean Tillman is in line for a huge payday next offseason in free agency, but he might never be more electric than he was on Opening Day.
In retrospect, what the Orioles were able to do before the All-Star break deserves more kudos than it got. By the end of June, they'd already ripped off three seven-game winning streaks, including one to open the season, and spent all but 15 days in the first half atop the American League East.
That was mostly buoyed by a record-breaking offensive June. In addition to hitting 56 home runs, they led the league in runs (185), hits (294), batting average (.300), on-base percentage (.357) and slugging percentage (.531). It was fun to watch, but it ultimately didn't last.
Part of the Orioles bullpen's strength in recent years hasn't just been that closer Zach Britton is unhittable, but the fact that he's not the only person they can rely upon. For four seasons, Darren O'Day was among the game's best setup men. The Orioles rewarded him as such after he was named to the All-Star Game in 2015, signing him to a four-year, $31 million deal.
But hamstring and shoulder injuries kept him off the mound for much of 2016, and in his place came another All-Star: Brad Brach.
Brach took a massive step forward in the first half of this season, entering the All-Star break with a 0.91 ERA and finishing the year with a 2.05 ERA. He had some problems keeping the ball in the park in the second half. But Brach's 2016 gives a lot of hope that the Orioles bullpen could be even better next year when it's at full strength with a health O'Day and all the rest of the parts back.
Deserved or not, no two players got more attention this year than outfielders Joey Rickard and Hyun Soo Kim. Both began the year as unknowns, with Rickard a Rule 5 draft pick and Kim a proven hitter in South Korea but untested in the United States. Rickard was a star in spring training, and started in left field on Opening Day. Kim struggled in spring training, and only made the roster because his contract allowed him to refuse assignment to the minors.
On that fateful April afternoon, Rickard was wildly cheered and Kim was booed when introduced. The former became something of a hero during the Orioles' seven-game winning streak that opened the season, and Kim hardly played. Over time, however, their roles reversed. Rickard's season ended in July after he'd become a platoon player, batting .268 before tearing a ligament in his thumb. By the end of May, Kim had become an everyday player and ended the year as a fan favorite, batting .302 with an on-base capability the Orioles desperately needed. Their paths were intertwined all season, and on a team of stars, there was plenty of spotlight left for these two.
Possibly a little low for the major league home run leader, but that says a lot about the rest of the cast of characters up and down the Orioles roster. He's a universally recognized value, considering he came from the Seattle Mariners for backup catcher Steve Clevenger and mashed 47 home runs while making the All-Star team and adding more power to the Orioles' potent offense.
He, like so many others on the team, slowed a bit in the second half, but that only accentuates how important his first-half production was to a team that set all kinds of records in June and needed a power bat to make up for Chris Davis' downswing. He wasn't the horror show the world seemed to make him out to be defensively, either. Overall, the Orioles continued a trend of finding value in raw power, placing it on a pedestal above all other traits and getting quite a return for it.
Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, selected fourth overall in the draft a year apart, both finally came good as bona fide members of the team's rotation in 2016. Gausman has been on the scene for a few years, shuffled between the rotation and bullpen, Triple-A and the majors, but was a full-time starting pitcher this year and developed into the team's most reliable — and at times dominant — starter down the stretch.
Bundy spent the first half of the year in the major league bullpen out of necessity, but moved to the rotation at the break and had some dazzling outings upon becoming a starter. His 4.02 ERA doesn't tell just how impressive he was at times. And if he adds back his cut fastball to an arsenal that seemed one pitch short last season, the Orioles could have two front-end starters that they brought along through the system to anchor their rotation for years to come.
This year began with a bang for the Orioles when they smashed a club record to sign Davis to a seven-year, $161 million contract in early January. Earlier in the offseason, catcher Matt Wieters had accepted the qualifying offer to return, and later O'Day had re-signed. So, this was the final piece of the re-assembling of the proverbial band.
As a symbolic gesture, it immunized the Orioles from allegations that they wouldn't spend money for the foreseeable future. But on the field, Davis' production made that contract seem onerous. He did end up with 38 home runs, but a thumb injury made it difficult for him to hit consistently all season, and he ended up leading the majors with 219 strikeouts while batting .221. Even taking into account his defense, Davis' first year under his new contract was a struggle from the start. The Orioles have to be hoping for more in 2017.
Here's a guy you can't say that about. It seems silly to hope for more from third baseman Manny Machado, but the same would have been said about his progression entering the 2016 season, and he certainly delivered. After breaking out in 2015, Machado created a new set of career highs offensively by batting .294/.343/.533 with 37 home runs, 78 extra-base hits, and 96 RBIs in his age-23 season.
He also showed he can capably handle shortstop, when he played there in the absence of J.J. Hardy over seven weeks in May and June, even if the stresses of the position contributed to him slugging Kansas City Royals starter Yordano Ventura after a beanball incident in June. Overall, the Orioles' season featured the further growth of an absolute superstar, one whom they'll need at his best if this iteration of the team hopes to grow into a championship contender in the next few years. The 2016 version is certainly a great start.
1. Zach Britton dominates all year, but not used in wild-card game
What else could be the top storyline? For the second part of this story to matter, you have to establish the first part. Britton was a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities with a 0.54 ERA, at one point setting the record for most appearances without an earned run in major league history and finishing fourth in the AL Cy Young Award balloting. He was virtually unhittable all year.
Then, of course, with the AL wild-card game tied an in extra innings, manager Buck Showalter emptied out his bullpen and even turned to the erratic Jimenez without going to his standout closer. In the bottom of the 11th, Edwin Encarnacion ended the game with a blast and the world was left to wonder how Britton didn't get into the game.
Showalter began defiant, but eventually seemed regretful of how the whole thing played out, if for nothing else than the fact that it was such a bad reflection on the Orioles' season and the players who helped them make the playoffs against considerable odds.
Meanwhile, the rest of the baseball playoffs seemed to be influenced by Britton's non-use. Closers came into games earlier and pitched longer, and Britton's value seemed to be affirmed with every day that passed. Fair or not, Britton's season — and the fact he didn't pitch in the playoffs — will define the 2016 Orioles.