Here we are, folks: the End of Season Post-Mortem series. If you're new here (which about 50% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from playoff contention, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated.
Was the Baltimore Orioles' 2012 success for real? That was the question coming into this season. Had the O's become a perennial contender in the AL East or were they a one-year flash in the pan? Capitalizing on that breakout success with an offseason splash seemed like the natural move to make. Yet the front office was curiously inactive last winter, opting not to add a top starting pitcher or upgrade in left field. Despite the emergence of Chris Davis and Manny Machado as superstar talents, standing pat with the roster — especially the pitching staff — may have cost them a return trip to the postseason.
Preseason prediction: Even with their lack of lack of off-season additions, the Orioles probably are better on paper than they were last season. That being said, they are probably not going to come close to their 2012 success. That might seem counter-intuitive, but it is really just a matter of no team being able to maintain the same luck in close games that Baltimore experienced last year. Still, they are going into this season looking at a full season out of Manny Machado and Chris Tillman, a healthy Nick Markakis, the potential debut of Dylan Bundy and more than enough warm bodies to throw at the back end of their rotation that the law of probablility practically mandates that at least one of them will pan out decently. Still, they just can't be that lucky again, not in a division as brutal as the AL East. In all likelihood the O's will be fighting to stay above the .500 mark rather than fighting for a playoff spot.
What Went Right: Davis benefited from the ol' change of scenery, escaping Texas to break out as the slugger everyone expected him to be. But in his second full season in Baltimore, Davis emerged as one of the best hitters in MLB. The Orioles first baseman looked like a serious challenger to Miguel Cabrera for the AL Triple Crown during the first half of the season. Davis' batting average dropped significantly since July, but he could finish the season with the most home runs and RBI in baseball. The O's have him under team control for two more seasons, unless they want to pursue a long-term contract extension.
Adam Jones also showed that his 2012 emergence was no fluke. For the second straight season, the center fielder exceeded 30 home runs and 35 doubles. Jones also surpassed 100 RBI for the first time in his career.
Before going down with a knee injury late in the season, Machado established himself as one of MLB's brightest young stars. He provided outstanding defense at third base, preventing more than 30 runs at his position, according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating. Machado also led the AL with 51 doubles. As many have pointed out, once the 21-year-old fills out and develops more power, a lot of those doubles will become home runs.
What Went Wrong: Perhaps the Orioles chose not to pursue a top free-agent starting pitcher because they believed top prospect Dylan Bundy would be ready to make the jump to the majors during the season. Unfortunately, Bundy developed forearm issues that are often the precursor to an elbow injury. Those worst fears were confirmed when a torn elbow ligament was discovered and Tommy John surgery was required for the 20-year-old.
With that setback, general manager Dan Duquette was among the most aggressive at the trade deadline, acquiring reliever Francisco Rodriguez, starters Scott Feldman and Bud Norris, and outfielder Michael Morse in an attempt to gain an edge over the Rays and Yankees in the AL wild-card race. None were ultimately impact players for the O's, but it was important to demonstrate to players and fans that the team was serious about staying in contention and returning to the playoffs.
Baltimore may also carry some questions about Jim Johnson into the offseason. Johnson led the AL in saves for the second consecutive season, but also blew more opportunities than any other closer this year. His strikeout rate increased, yet so did his rate of walks and hits allowed per nine innings. Will the O's try to trade Johnson while his value is still relatively high? That might depend on whether Showalter believes someone like T.J. McFarland or Darren O'Day is capable of taking over ninth-inning duties.
Most Surprising Player: Another reason that the O's may not have pursued an ace-type starter in the offseason is because they believed one of their in-house candidates was capable of leading the rotation. Chris Tillman might not necessarily be an ideal No. 1 starter. His .266 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and 4.36 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) indicate that he wasn't really as good as his 16-7 record and 3.62 ERA would lead you to believe.
Yet Tillman also finished with the highest strikeout rate among Orioles starting pitchers, averaging nearly eight Ks per nine innings. He also threw more than 200 innings, the sort of heavy workload that every big league rotation needs. The question is whether or not he should be the No. 1 guy in Baltimore's starting five. Orioles starters compiled a 4.51 ERA this year, ranking 27th out of 30 MLB clubs. Think of how much better this staff could be with a true ace at the top with Tillman working as the second or third starter in the rotation.
Most Disappointing Player: Baltimore's starting pitching would certainly have been helped by a better performance from Jason Hammel. Last year, he was a pleasant surprise for the Orioles, finishing with a 3.43 ERA while striking out nearly nine batters per nine innings. But in 2013, Hammel regressed badly. His strikeout rate dropped to 6.1, while he averaged 10 hits allowed every nine frames. Should it be a surprise that his ERA surged to 5.04?
Hammel is a free agent after the season and it's difficult to imagine the O's will bring him back next year unless he's willing to sign a bargain-rate contract and pitch at the back of the rotation.
The Future: Will Duquette and Showalter take their aggressive trade deadline approach into the coming offseason and get another outfield bat, designated hitter or top-of-the-rotation starter? That could be the difference in Baltimore continuing to compete with the Red Sox and Rays in the AL East.
The injuries to Bundy and Machado are devastating in the short-term, but happened early enough in their young careers that Baltimore should still feel very hopeful about them becoming cornerstone players for the franchise. The same should apply to infield prospect Jonathan Schoop, who suffered a stress fracture in his lower back this year. He and Kevin Gausman, who struggled in his first major league action in 2013, might need some more time to develop in the minors.
Despite those setbacks, however, the future looks bright for the Orioles. Not qualifying for the playoffs this year has to be a disappointment, but Baltimore demonstrated its success wasn't a one-season fluke. With their current stars and developing young talent, the O's should be an AL East and wild-card contender for years to come.