The sense within the Orioles' organization is that 2014 wasn't just a good season that ended prematurely with a sweep in the American League Championship Series. It was, the Orioles believe, notice served that this club is a legitimate championship contender.
For the second time in three years the Orioles made the playoffs. They made their run to the precipice of the World Series without consistent contributions from their most expensive pitcher and three All Stars — all of whom should return in 2015.
Now that the season is over, the onus is on executive vice president Dan Duquette, manager Buck Showalter and owner Peter Angelos to bolster the weaknesses that were exposed in the postseason and put the Orioles in position to get to — and win — the October Classic.
"What I want our fans to know is that we took a big step forward this year. We won the division. We won 99 games (total) and we aim to be competitive year in and year out," Duquette said. "We've had playoff games here the past couple of years and we're going to do everything we can to continue that tradition."
Here are five things the Orioles can do between now and Opening Day, April 6, to keep the 2015 season alive throughout October.
In 2014 the Orioles smashed 211 home runs, 25 more than any other major league team. Yet they finished seventh in runs scored. That's partially because their on-base percentage was .311, 17th in the majors and five points below the AL average.
This is not a new problem. The Orioles had one player in each of the previous two seasons that had more than 250 plate appearances and an on-base percentage over .335: Chris Davis in 2013 and Nick Markakis in 2012. This year they actually had three: Steve Pearce, Markakis and Delmon Young, who barely met those requirements with a .337 OBP in 255 plate appearances. Markakis and Young are not signed for 2015.
Duquette has preached the importance of OBP since he came to the Orioles. Yet, for the most part, the club's top players are aggressive free-swingers who homer and strike out frequently.
That hasn't hurt in the regular season, but the lineup's lack of diversification is more crucial in the postseason when runs are at a premium.
Ideally, the Orioles would re-sign Markakis and bat him second — where he has a .384 on-base percentage in his career — while adding a leadoff hitter with speed and on-base capabilities.
They aren't easy to find, particularly in this year's free agent market. But the Orioles have an abundance of solid starting pitching that could be dealt. Even if they can't nab a leadoff guy, they need one more hitter — maybe more — who works counts, draws walks and has good at-bats.
Buy an ace
In reality, this isn't going to happen. The Orioles hadn't given a free agent pitcher a contract beyond three years in club history before signing Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal in February. And his first year was a disaster; he lost his spot in the rotation and wasn't included on the ALCS roster.
So making a plea for an even bigger pitching deal this offseason seems fruitless. But there is a trio of top starters on the free agent market this winter: Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields.
Any one of them would immediately become the club's ace and allow the rest of the rotation to slot out more appropriately. Chris Tillman could drop to No. 2, Wei-Yin Chen to No. 3, etc.
The rotation wasn't the problem in the playoffs — only Bud Norris had a quality start, but Showalter had a quicker hook than usual in an attempt to create better matchups with his bullpen. But you can never have too much starting pitching, especially at the top.
The Orioles haven't had a true ace since Mike Mussina.
This is something that will get done in the offseason, and in May and in July and in September. It's Duquette's specialty. He has been great at adding players such as Young, Andrew Miller, Alejandro De Aza and Nick Hundley, who can fit in and fill roles.
But when Davis was suspended in September, after the deadline for Duquette to add someone to the playoff roster pool, the Orioles were stuck with just one true pinch-hitter in Young. David Lough was more of a defensive specialist-pinch runner and Showalter was hesitant to use Kelly Johnson or Jimmy Paredes to hit in the late innings, because he didn't want to potentially sacrifice defense in tight games.
Duquette needs to be on the lookout for better-rounded bench players in 2015. It shouldn't be that difficult. The Orioles have the reputation of being able to provide opportunities — and, recently, playoff shares.
One area of need is a hitter who can catch as well as play a little infield or outfield. Steve Clevenger fits that description, but the club soured on his defense in 2014. Duquette also needs to add another left-handed reliever to the staunch bullpen. The Orioles would love to have Miller back, but some team is going to pay him huge money to be its closer.
Bubble wrap Machado and Wieters
Really, the Orioles' biggest additions next year could be third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters. Having both of them on the shelf for much of this season hampered the club both offensively and defensively.
Machado has ended the past two seasons prematurely due to injuries, and will be playing next year on two, surgically repaired knees. That's a concern, but the hope is that, since he is only 22, he'll rebound effectively and continue his trajectory toward stardom.
Wieters, 28, was having his best year with the bat when his season ended in May due to a torn elbow ligament. Like Machado, the prognosis is that he'll be ready around spring training. Showalter has said repeatedly that he expects Wieters to have a tremendous 2015. He's always motivated, but being out for nearly a year while his teammates made the playoffs crushed him.
Figure out Jimenez and Davis
If the Orioles could guarantee average seasons out of their most expensive pitcher and most celebrated slugger, they would probably be favorites to win the East.
Jimenez, 30, signed his big contract after a tremendous second half for the Cleveland Indians in 2013, and was 0-4 with a 6.59 ERA in five April starts with the Orioles in 2014. He rebounded in May, but regressed again.
When Jimenez signed, there were snickers that he wasn't worth the money. But he shouldn't be this bad. The Orioles need Jimenez to be a serviceable starter. It would strengthen the rotation and potentially create a trade market for him, which currently is nonexistent.
This time last year fans clamored for the Orioles to sign Davis to a bank-breaking contract. That's what happens when you hit a franchise-record 53 homers. Now, there's a sentiment to cut Davis loose and free up salary to spend elsewhere.
That's what happens when you bat under .200 and test positive for amphetamines.
It would be surprising if the Orioles gave up on Davis after one awful year. They know how good he is when he is right. They just need to get him right.