Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter talk about the end of the season and highlights of the season. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Less than 48 hours after the Orioles' 2016 season ended dramatically in the American League wild-card game, executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter sat together at Camden Yards looking back at the year while looking to the future.
Duquette called the Orioles' season — in which they won 89 games in the regular season and advanced to the playoffs for the third time in his five years with the club — a "personal favorite" of his. Showalter still fielded questions about his controversial decision to leave closer Zach Britton unused late in Tuesday's 11-inning walk-off loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, but looked ahead. He said his offseason plans included at trip to instructional league in Sarasota, Fla., and the Arizona Fall League to familiarize himself with some of the organization's up-and-coming minor leaguers.
"Unfortunately, that's the society we live in today," Showalter said when asked about the criticism he has received. "You know the description going in. But there's a lot of coulda, shoulda, woulda. You're a human being. You have those emotions, and there's certain things in my capacity you just have to wear. I'm used to it."
For Showalter, Tuesday's 5-2 season-ending loss was still difficult to digest.
"I don't want to get too dramatic because there's a lot of things going on in this world and this country that are more tough than this, but it's a shattering thing for the players and the fans who put so much into it and care so much about it," Showalter said. "It rips your heart out. It always drives you to get there again and get another opportunity. That promise I make. … Nobody wants to hear about [what went wrong]. It's just show me the, I don't know [if it's] money — the end game.
"You realize how many things have to go [right] for you to be one of those 10 teams. I think that's what really gets you. You know what really could happen to make it even more challenging next year."
Whether this year's Orioles lived up to expectations can be debated. Outside Baltimore, most picked them to be a noncontender, but that's nothing new, and the Orioles have five straight nonlosing seasons to show for it. But still, the Orioles invested more money in free-agent deals than any other club last offseason, and their Opening Day payroll of about $148 million was the largest in club history and the 10th largest in baseball.
"First of all, nobody ever picks us, which is fine by us, but whatever criteria they [pick] us, by the end of the season we usually have a pretty good ballclub," Duquette said. "Did we think we had the chance to make the playoffs in spring training? That's what we put our nose to grindstone, shoulder to the wheel to try to accomplish. We thought we had an opportunity to do it."
But ultimately in flipping the page to 2017, the two agreed that the looming offseason will have its share of challenges.
The Orioles will have to replace pitching coach Dave Wallace, who has decided to retire from coaching, Showalter announced Thursday. The Orioles have nine pending free agents, and their first offseason priority is to decide whether to make qualifying offers to their two most prominent ones — major league home run leader Mark Trumbo and career-long Oriole Matt Wieters.
"We'll have a chance to address those," Duquette said. "Both of those guys had good years. Trumbo had a really good year and Matt showed he was healthy and capable of playing every day."
With several key players, like Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Zach Britton set to reach free agency after the 2018 season, and Chris Tillman becoming a free agent after next season, this is a prime opportunity to pursue long-term extensions with those players. They could also explore one with second baseman Jonathan Schoop, whose three-year arbitration clock starts in 2017. Duquette said he had extension conversations with Tillman and Machado in the past, talks that appeared to be preliminary and never gained traction, but hasn't engaged Schoop.
"I'm sure we'll have time to look at that," Duquette said. "All those players have done a good job for us."
In the past, the Orioles had the luxury of not being locked into many payroll-crippling long-term deals. But heading into 2017, the club will have already committed $96 million to eight players. That doesn't include a list of 11 arbitration-eligible players — the team is unlikely to tender contracts to all — that includes Machado ($5 million in 2016) and Britton ($6.75 million in 2016), who are set to receive hefty raises after enjoying the best seasons of their careers.
The Orioles return six starting pitchers, and four of them — Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley — either will or could become free agents after 2017 if club options are declined. But the Orioles will likely be committing at least $42 million to the quartet next season. Even so, Duquette said adding more pitching will be an offseason priority.
"We don't necessarily have the urgency we've had the last couple years," Duquette said. "And I expect those veteran pitchers to pitch well. They're going to pitch as well as they're going to pitch going into their option year. There's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for starting pitchers in baseball. I expect those guys to come into camp in good shape and they're going to be competing for the innings. We've got some young guys who want to pitch, too."
Still, 2016 was another season that was characterized by offensive struggles down the stretch while the Orioles posted prolific power numbers. The Orioles hit 253 homers in 2016, but 60 percent of those home runs were solo shots, leaving them struggling not only to get runners on to set the table for those homers but also with manufacturing runs.
While Duquette said the team would like to keep improving its on-base capabilities, he added that the Orioles won't make a dramatic switch away from their identity as a power-hitting club.
"We like to have power throughout our lineup," Duquette said. "That's been a consistent theme. We like to have good defense at every position. Ideally, we'd like to have power at every position. We can do a better job of on-base capability, absolutely, but the power plays pretty well in our ballpark. It helps us. We had 50 wins at home this year. I think our fans enjoy seeing it. When you get into a close game, yes, you actually have to do it offensively. But the power plays. They don't have any fielders on the other side of the fence.
"Our strengths are generally the same. We've got a really good bullpen. We've got power throughout the lineup. We have excellent defense. We're going to do the same thing next year."