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For The Orioles, Making The Playoffs Constitutes Successful Season

September 15, 2016
This is what you wanted. This is what Orioles fans should have hoped for when the team first assembled in Sarasota, Fla., in February.

There is meaningful September baseball in Baltimore.

I've heard from fans that's no longer enough. That after postseason runs in 2012 and 2014, you demand meaningful baseball in September and expect the postseason in October. And anything short of a World Series would be a disappointment.

I get it, but it doesn't really work that way. Making the playoffs constitutes a successful season, even if the ending isn't satisfying. Only one of the 30 cities can have a tickertape parade each November. 

And maybe it will be Baltimore; once a team gets into the playoffs anything can happen. Make no mistake, there's no team in the American League that isn't flawed.

But if the Orioles fall short of the goal of winning the World Series, the blame likely will be cast toward the deficiencies that have haunted this club since 2012.

The starting pitching isn't formidable. Even if they can hold the opposition to just a few runs, the starters, as a unit, don't routinely pitch deep into games. And the offense is too one-dimensional. When the Orioles aren't hitting home runs at a near-record pace, they have trouble scoring runs.

These are things that should have been fixed during this offseason, or really any offseason in the past few years. It's easier said than done, of course. It's not so much about spending money, it's about spending money wisely and on the right people. And that's an art.

Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette did grab an easel this winter and painted by buying numbers. He signed Hyun Soo Kim, the Korean Hit Machine, who has led all Orioles regulars and semi-regulars in on-base percentage this year. He selected outfielder Joey Rickard from the Tampa Bay Rays in the Rule 5 draft, partially because of a career .390 OBP in the minors, and Rickard reached base at a .319 clip before losing much of the second half to a thumb injury.

Duquette also re-signed first baseman Chris Davis to a $161 million deal, mostly for his power potential, but Davis also has been one of the club's better on-base guys in the past few seasons. Slugger Mark Trumbo, acquired from Seattle in December in case the Orioles lost Davis, has been leading the majors in homers this season, but was also respectable in the on-base category for a chunk of the year.

Put it all together, and the Orioles lead the world in longballs and have raised their OBP from a dismal .307 in 2015 to a mark that's been around .320 in 2016. Consequently, the Orioles are on pace to score 50 more runs than they did in 2015, when they were seventh in the AL.

On the starting pitching front, Duquette added right-hander Yovani Gallardo (two years, $22 million) to the rotation in the offseason and, in July, traded for lefty Wade Miley. The Orioles dipped into their own system for other starters: Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson to add to mainstay Chris Tillman and the disappointing Ubaldo Jimenez.

It hasn't gone smoothly; we all know that. The Orioles' rotation ERA has hovered just under 5.00 in 2016, actually worse than what it was (4.53 ERA) in 2015.

It's easy to hammer Duquette for not better addressing the rotation. Buying starting pitching in free agency, however, is an incredibly risky proposition. It's always extremely overpriced and rarely ends up as a good investment based on the length of the contracts.

Sure, the Orioles could have used an ace more than anything else this winter.

But the cost for such a pitcher?

David Price, 31, at seven years and $217 million; Zack Greinke, 32, at six years and $206.5 million; Johnny Cueto, 30, at six years and $130 million.

You could make the argument the Orioles could have used Davis' money on Cueto and still had some cash remaining. But, for one, long-term investments on hitters are typically more prudent than on pitchers.

Two, Cueto wasn't signing in the AL. He'd had his taste of the AL in his brief time in Kansas City and was headed back to the more comforting lineups in the NL (with a pitcher hitting ninth). And, most important, he was choosing a pitcher-friendly home park, and Camden Yards is never on that list.

The Orioles are not only wary of long-term deals to free-agent pitchers, but they'd also have to overpay to land them, given the reputations of Camden Yards and the AL East. Really, though, it's more about the club philosophy of buying the bats and growing the arms. With the exception of some top picks, such as Bundy and Gausman and relievers Zach Britton and Mychal Givens, the Orioles' minor league system has not been fertile ground for growing arms (a topic for another day).

The largest free-agent contract the Orioles have given to a pitcher was the four-year, $50 million deal to Jimenez before the 2014 season. Given how poorly that contract has worked out -- though Jimenez has had some brief flashes at times -- you can't expect the Orioles to triple that expenditure for another starter in the future. And, honestly, there's no one worthy of that kind of commitment likely available in free agency this winter (Jeremy Hellickson and Rich Hill may be the best of the group).

So the Orioles have to hope their current crop of pitchers can at least be adequate, and their offense can bash the opposition when it's most needed: playoff time.

It's not an ideal formula for the postseason, when good pitching often negates a dangerous offense. But the Kansas City Royals had one of baseball's worst rotations last year and won the World Series thanks to a great bullpen and a resourceful offense.

In 2015, Kansas City had its first tickertape parade since 1985.

Orioles fans want to go back to the 1980s, too -- 1983 to be exact.

They'll have to get to the postseason first. It won't be easy, and it probably won't be pretty, given the club's biggest flaws are never fully addressed for various reasons.

But if these Orioles make it to the playoffs -- significant warts and all -- that has to be called a successful season, no matter the final outcome. 

Issue 225: September 2016