An argument could be made that the Orioles fielded a club this season with more stability — and talent — than the one that won 93 games and advanced to the American League Division Series in 2012.
But playing in the rough-and-tumble AL East, that wasn't enough for the Orioles to make a return trip to the postseason. Now the focus in the Warehouse turns to how executive vice president Dan Duquette can upgrade the club and get it back to the postseason next year.
The Orioles had breakout seasons from first baseman Chris Davis, who led the majors in homers and RBIs, and third baseman Manny Machado, who played Gold Glove-caliber defense and led the AL with 51 doubles.
The team's batting order was one of the game's most imposing, but the Orioles suffered through a second-half slide and finished the season 28-34 after winning their first four games following the All-Star break.
"We know we have a number of areas we need to improve upon," Duquette said. "Playing in the American League East and playing a 162-game schedule, that will reveal your strengths and also your developmental areas in things you need to work on to get better. I think that we scored a few more runs this year than we did a year ago and we gave up, I think, four more runs than we did a year ago. But we didn't really convert on some of our chances.
"We have to improve in both areas. We need to improve our run production. Our slugging was good, but our on-base capability certainly needs to improve and our pitching needs to improve."
The ERAs of the Orioles' starting rotation and bullpen went up from 2012. But the bullpen's struggles coincided with having to pick up additional innings when starters were unable to go deep into games.
Duquette said the goal is to have a rotation rich with pitchers who can log 30 starts and 200 innings, as right-hander Chris Tillman did this season. Tillman started 33 games and logged 2061/3 innings while going 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA.
But in a free-agent pitching market not rich with front-of-the-rotation arms — Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda, Bartolo Colon and Ervin Santana are the headliners of an otherwise unspectacular crop — the Orioles likely will look to further develop their existing pitchers rather than paying a premium on the free-agent market.
Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen made 23 starts in an injury-shortened 2013 but made 32 in 2012. Miguel Gonzalez started 28 games this season, and right-hander Bud Norris, acquired in a deadline deal with the Houston Astros, made 30 starts.
But none of them came close to pitching 200 innings. This spring, former Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland likely will have an opportunity to crack the starting rotation, as will Steve Johnson and Zach Britton.
"That would be the goal: to make the most of the players on our current roster and encourage them to train in a way in the offseason to help them accomplish that," Duquette said. "Of course, we're going to be mindful of any starting pitching we can pick up either in a trade or a free agent, but it's tough. Veteran pitching, that's an expensive market.
"We have to do a better job with our developmental program," Duquette said. "But we've made some strides. We have some young pitchers on the horizon, but again, if you're going to be in the playoffs and you're going to compete, you're going to need some solid dependable starting pitcher, and I would say a pitcher who starts 30 games and gives 200 innings, that's terrific. Tillman should be commended, but our goal would be to develop four pitchers like that."
Top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman, right-hander Mike Wright and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez are on the horizon. Gausman threw 1292/3 innings in his first full pro season, pitching well out of the bullpen. But Gausman, who will turn 23 in January, likely needs more seasoning before emerging as the front-line starter the Orioles hope for.
"The biggest need, by far, is a top-of-the-rotation starter," Fox Sports senior writer Ken Rosenthal said. "I had a number of opposing players tell me this season that the Orioles lineup was among the best in the league. Even with slight regression from Davis and Machado — if it happens — the lineup will continue to be strong. The rotation is another story, but the problem is getting the type of pitcher I'm talking about. The free agent market is thin, and they probably would need to trade Gausman or [Dylan] Bundy to get a veteran ace, if one is even available."
Scott Feldman is not an ace, but the club has an interest in re-signing the veteran right-hander, another midseason trade acquisition. Feldman has shown a mutual interest, but the Orioles would be best served by working fast to re-sign him before he hits the open market; that would happen six days after the World Series ends.
Feldman also fits well because he's a ground-ball pitcher, which plays to the Orioles' superior defense.
The Orioles will also explore re-signing outfielder Nate McLouth and second baseman Brian Roberts, likely to one-year deals, but will also explore signing other hitters who could help their on-base percentage.
The bullpen makeup is more certain. Before the season ended, Duquette said he would tender closer Jim Johnson, who is entering his final season of arbitration eligibility, a contract for 2014.
Johnson figures to make up to $9 million in the arbitration process. At that price, Johnson — who led the majors in saves (50) and blown saves (nine) — certainly would be used in the closer role again.
"It's one of those things you won't truly appreciate until it's not there," manager Buck Showalter said. "I can't make people realize how hard it is to do what these guys do in the ninth inning. ... Jimmy has never wavered in his belief in his team. We'd all love for it to be aesthetically [pleasing] and go out there and throw nine pitches and strike everybody out, and the game's over after the eighth inning. … It's hard to do. When you find someone who can do it, you better realize what you've got. They don't come along very often.
The arbitration process will bring hefty raises to players such as Davis, Johnson and catcher Matt Wieters.
"The point that I would make is that we put as much as we can toward the major league payroll, and by reconnecting with our fans, we can appropriate additional dollars because the team is more popular in the market," Duquette said. "But having said that, we need to be very judicious about how we spend that money because this is the American League East. I think the best way for us to be competitive is to have a good solid development program. ... I really think the solution to having a good team year in and year out is for us to continue to improve our player development operations, particularly with the pitching."
While Davis and Wieters remain under team control through the 2015 season, one of the biggest offseason storylines will be whether the club pursues talks with one or both on a long-term deal.
Duquette appears open to talking this offseason; both players are represented by Scott Boras, who is notoriously difficult to negotiate with.
"To me, the biggest thing the Orioles need to know is whether they have a shared future with Chris Davis and Matt Wieters," said ESPN senior writer Buster Olney. "They need to get a read on whether they can sign one or both to long-term deals, and that will shape everything that follows. If they cannot, they should consider trading one or both; this is what has distinguished the Rays and Athletics — trading their veterans at exactly the right time to maximize value."
Getting back to the playoffs
Here is a team statistical comparison of this season's team to last year's playoff club. Most offensive categories improved, but most pitching categories declined.
Statistic 2012 2013
Batting avg. .247 .260
On-base percentage .311 .313
Slugging percentage .417 .431
Avg. RISP .256 .266
Home runs 214 212
Runs scored 712 745
Runs allowed 705 709
Home runs allowed 184 202
Staff ERA 3.90 4.20
Rotation ERA 4.42 4.57
Bullpen ERA 3.00 3.52
Saves/Save opps 55/73 57/84
Save opp percentage 75% 68%
Fielding percentage .983 .991