Schmuck: How did the Orioles fall so far so fast to endure worst season in club history?

The merciful end of the 2018 season has finally arrived for an Orioles team that might never live down what happened this year.

No one needs to be reminded the final number in the loss column is larger than anything previously pondered during the 65 seasons that this franchise has been in Baltimore. The 1988 team is finally off the hook, though its 21-game season-opening losing streak will remain prominent in the organization’s hall of shame.

Yes, we all know what happened over the past six months, but do we really know why?

The case can be made that the team that took the field on Opening Day was a better one — on paper — than the Orioles team that remained in contention for a wild-card playoff berth for the first five months of the 2017 season.

Something went horribly wrong last September and the bad karma obviously carried over into 2018, even though the Orioles signed two veteran starting pitchers during spring training and returned every starting position player except catcher Welington Castillo.

At some point late last summer, the strong team chemistry that propelled the Orioles through a five-year period as the winningest team in the American League gave way to a competitive malaise that has persisted for 13 months.

Here’s a theory: The Orioles began to unravel soon after the reality of the looming free-agent exodus and resultant rebuild began to cast a shadow over the clubhouse. That would be in July 2017, when the Orioles began shopping superstar Manny Machado and record-setting closer Zach Britton.

This season was supposed to be the last possible playoff year of the competitive renaissance that began in 2012, the uplifting first year of the Buck Showalter-Dan Duquette era. Instead, the page had already turned and spring training became the place where Machado was fending off all the national reporters who wanted to know where he was going to play in 2019.

Maybe this is just so much psychobabble, but there really was a sense before the season even began that the good times were coming to an end.

It certainly didn’t help that Britton suffered an Achilles tendon tear during an offseason workout and was lost for the first two months of the season. But there were a couple dozen other teams that didn’t possess one of the sport’s best closers that still managed to avoid setting club records for losses.

It also didn’t help that slugger Mark Trumbo missed the first month with a thigh injury, but Pedro Álvarez replaced some of that lost power with eight home runs and fellow spring arrival Danny Valencia also provided some pop.

Of course, it is beyond dispute that the inexplicable decline of two-time major league home champion Chris Davis left a gaping hole in the lineup that could not be back-filled because of the massive seven-year financial investment the Orioles made in him before the 2016 season.

Apparently, Davis had more to do with the Orioles’ mojo than anyone imagined, because the vacuum he created in the middle of the lineup seemed to suck the life out of the hitters around him. Adam Jones will finish the year with home run and RBI totals dramatically below his career averages. Jonathan Schoop followed up his Most Valuable Oriole season in 2017 with similarly disappointing numbers until he heated up just ahead of the trade that sent him to the Milwaukee Brewers. Young outfielder Trey Mancini also struggled through the early months of the season after finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year vote last season.

The midseason tear-down might have helped the Orioles blow past the franchise’s 1988 loss total, but it was much more the result of the team’s poor performance than the cause of it. What choice did the front office have when it was apparent as early as May that the only noise the Orioles were going to make in the runaway AL East was a loud, resounding thud?

If anyone wants to delve deeper into the mistakes that brought about this sad outcome, there are always the two decisions in 2014 that might have cost the Orioles another playoff run or two. Letting Nelson Cruz go after he won the home run title in 2014 and giving up on signing Nick Markakis that same offseason almost certainly had an impact on the long-term success of the team.

Both were passed on as free agents because of concerns about guaranteeing a fourth year in their late 30s, which has to make it particularly galling for fans that Markakis had a career year this season as the Atlanta Braves won the National League East. The Seattle Mariners didn’t make the playoffs, and Cruz’s production declined. He entered the final weekend with 37 home runs and 96 RBIs.

To be fair, even if both had re-signed and helped the club improve on a couple of disappointing seasons, the Orioles might still be heading into a murky future right now.

It just would have been a lot more fun along the way.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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