In fielding playoff teams three times over a five-year span before this season, the Orioles consistently proved wrong the prognosticators who regularly predicted they'd be a last-place team in the American League East.
Now, as the Orioles look forward from their first losing season since 2011 — they won 14 fewer games than last year's wild-card team — the front office is banking on building a playoff contender for 2018 in the same resourceful way it has in recent years.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette has made it clear he's focused on a reload and not a rebuild, but a rebound might be more fitting.
If this season taught the Orioles anything, it's that many things must go their way to make the postseason. This season, they benefited from league parity — the five AL playoff teams were the only ones with winning records — a fact that enabled them to be within one game of the final playoff spot as late as Sept. 7.
"There's two teams from the [AL] East … in the playoffs this year, always the toughest division," Duquette said. "The margin for error that we have is very small, it's razor thin, so if you're going to have a good team, you have to do a lot of things well. We did some things well this year, and some things we've got to work on and do things better in the future."
The Orioles are a team built on power hitting, a stellar bullpen and iron-clad defense to cover a rotation that pitches to contact, but that formula didn't lead to the same success as in recent years, resulting in the team's first last-place division finish under Duquette and manager Buck Showalter.
"So finally this year they can say, 'I told you so?' Finally?" Showalter said, alluding to the prognosticators.
Showalter conceded that many things didn't go the Orioles' way in 2017, but he said a significant number of those things are correctable.
"Anything I say sounds like an excuse," Showalter said. "I don't want to talk about injuries. I don't want to talk about underperformance and other stuff. It's all pertinent. I'm more interested in attacking the things that are self-inflicted and all the things that contributed to that. … I'm not saying it's easy to identify the problem. There's certain things you can see statistically, but there's so much more that goes into it. We weren't a perfect club in '13, '14, '15, '16, but we overcame some of the challenges that ballclubs face. You look at Cleveland and some of these teams that have had big years. They're not perfect, but they've been able to identify and attack the problems. That's what we've got ahead of us."
One thing most of the 10 major league playoff teams have in common is strong starting pitching. In fact, each of the top eight clubs in starting rotation ERA are playoff teams — the only exceptions being the Colorado Rockies (16th) and Minnesota Twins (19th), who are wild-card teams that fit the Orioles' mold more than the others.
The Orioles' starting rotation ERA this season was 5.70, last among the 30 major league clubs.
Only two Orioles starters — cornerstone right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman — are guaranteed to return in 2018. Right-handers Ubaldo Jiménez and Chris Tillman are eligible for free agency, and while the Orioles carry a $12 million club option on left-hander Wade Miley, it appears the team is more likely to give him his $500,000 buyout check and send him to free agency.
The Orioles have never been major players for top free-agent starting pitchers, and the return the team received on Jimenez's club-record, four-year, $50 million deal doesn't bode well for the club making that kind of investment again. But with potentially more than $55 million coming off the books from their Opening Day payroll — some will have to be invested into hefty arbitration raises for players such as third baseman Manny Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop — Duquette said some of that leftover money can be invested in free-agent starting pitching.
"It's a thin market and that's an expensive market," Duquette said. "Having said that, we do have some resources that will be able to be redirected to our pitching staff, so we ought to be able to make a contribution to our pitching staff. … So we're going to have to do some work and we're going to have to be resourceful to come up with another couple of starters for this ballclub. Nobody feels sorry for you in the American League East. You've got to show up every night ready to play these teams. They've got a lot of resources and deep farm systems. We've been able to do that consistently over the years, and our aim will be to do that again in 2018."
Duquette said another season of attendance above the 2 million mark will allow the team to remain around the $150 million level in payroll for next season, which he said "gives us plenty of resources to compete and we aim to have a good team here every year and we aim to have another good team next season." The Orioles' Opening Day payroll was $164.3 million in 2017, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts.
In his effort to rebuild the rotation, he points to the 2012 season, when the Orioles made several under-the-radar moves that proved prosperous. Duquette signed Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen out of Japan to a club-friendly international free-agent deal. He unloaded right-hander Jeremy Guthrie the week before spring training in a trade to acquire veteran right-hander Jason Hammel. By midseason, Tillman joined the rotation for good and right-hander Miguel González, another hidden gem unearthed after pitching in Mexico, gave the rotation a boost.
In that season — during which the Orioles earned their first playoff berth in 15 years — the club also had remarkable rotation depth, using 12 pitchers to start games. Duquette took the same approach before this season, focusing on assembling a stable of optionable arms for spot starts and long-relief stints, but the results were less successful. However, by the end of the year, right-handers Miguel Castro and Gabriel Ynoa emerged as back-end rotation candidates for next year.
But that doesn't fill out the rotation. And top free-agent pitchers, such as right-hander Yu Darvish and former Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta, don't appear to be in the budget, making a second-tier starter, such as St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn, a more reasonable target.
"I think it's been pretty clear all season," said first baseman Chris Davis, who completed the second season of a club-record seven-year, $161 million deal. "We have to be more consistent with our pitching. I say that knowing that it's not easy to go out there and lock up a front-line starter. There's a lot more work required that goes into it. We talked about the last few years the growing and experience that Gaus and Bundy needed and were going to get, and I can see them make strides in the right direction, and we've seen the potential there, and it looks pretty good. Do we need a veteran guy? Do we need a solid ace? I don't know the answer to that question.
"I just think there has to be more consistency. And that's not to say that we don't need to do things as far as our lineup is concerned to be a little more versatile, not so much all or nothing, but I mean there has to be consistency throughout the pitching staff, the lineup, the defense, and I just feel like this year that was probably our biggest Achilles' heel was our inconsistency."
The Orioles' offensive flaw has been clear for years — leaning too much on home runs has led to deep slumps throughout the lineup when the ball isn't going out of the yard — and that was compounded during a season in which the team fell behind big early, leading to hitters swinging for the fences even more and resulting in offensive lulls.
Ultimately, the same problems that have held back the offense in previous years resurfaced in 2017. The Orioles hit 232 homers, fifth most in the majors, but ranked 16th in runs with 743. Of their 232 homers this season, 64 percent (149) came with the bases empty, indicating the continuing need for better on-base capabilities. The Orioles again were prone to deep swings in productivity, as seen from the club-record 57 homers, .882 OPS and 175 runs in August compared with 27 homers, .617 OPS and 83 runs in September and October.
The defense, also a staple of the team's success, regressed this season. Using the advanced statistic RZR (revised zone rating), which measures "the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone that he successfully converted into an out," the Orioles ranked 24th in baseball (.800). By comparison, they were ninth in 2016 (.822). Between 2012 and 2016, they were ninth (.826).
Duquette made it clear he intends to make one more run with this group — meaning Machado, closer Zach Britton, center fielder Adam Jones and setup man Brad Brach, all pending free agents after 2018 — won't be shopped this offseason.
Despite this year's disappointing result, Duquette and Showalter, both entering their final season under contract, figure to remain in their roles, and managing partner Peter G. Angelos should expect both to honor the remainder of their deals. Showalter has maintained over the past several years that Baltimore is his final managing stop, and both he and Duquette emphasized that no matter their contract situations, part of their job is to work to ensure the club's stability for the short term and long term. Both are active in the development of players who aren't likely to help the team until after 2018.
Duquette and Showalter certainly aren't treating 2018 as if it's their final season with the club. Still, this offseason will be their biggest challenge since the offseason after 2011, their first season together.
"Pitching, defense and timely hitting wins you games," said Jones, the club's longest-tenured player. "This year we didn't click on all cylinders. You can point fingers where you want. I just think as a team we didn't click on all cylinders. Sometimes, we pitched; sometimes, we hit. We always played pretty good defense. But we never hit and pitched at the same time cohesively. It happens. So, I think Dan and Buck, if they can sit at the same table this offseason, maybe just on the phone or something, solve it. That's their jobs. I know Buck pushes for a lot of guys; I know Dan pushes for a lot of guys. Then, you factor in PA [Peter Angelos] to it, there's a whole lot more variables, but I think that they both want to win. I know Dan and Buck do. It's just a matter if they can get the right pieces here."