The Orioles' 2016 season halted in a blink, a walkoff homer by Blue Jays first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion at Rogers Centre in the 11th inning Oct. 4 allowing the Blue Jays to soar deeper into the playoffs and forcing the Orioles to go home.
That abrupt ending left this team with a lot of questions heading into the offseason.
Will the club re-sign any of its pending free agents, including longtime starting catcher Matt Wieters or major league home run-leading outfielder/designated hitter Mark Trumbo?
Who will replace recently retired pitching coach Dave Wallace?
Will the front office try to improve a rotation ranked 13th of 15 in the American League in ERA even though there are five pitchers returning who started at least 14 games for the Orioles (and three more to start 11 or more)?
The pitching equation is particularly intriguing:
Do they try to unload one of their middling veteran starters -- Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez or Wade Miley -- now that Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy should fill three rotation spots in 2017?
Or do they keep six starters after what happened last year when they released longtime Oriole Miguel Gonzalez in a cost-cutting move before Opening Day, only to spend most of the season looking for rotation help after rookie starters Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson floundered?
Conventional wisdom says the engine that drives a team during the season is starting pitching. But the Orioles won 89 games with mediocre results from the starters. How is that possible?
Well, most say the Orioles' sluggers, who led the second-place American League team in home runs (the Seattle Mariners) by 30, just bashed their way to wins.
And that's sort of true. On 24 occasions, the Orioles won by five or more runs; but on 21 occasions, they lost by five or more runs. They actually had a better record in one-run games (21-16) than in blowouts (24-21).
The Orioles scored eight runs or more in 28 games this season (17 percent of the time), and they were 27-1 in those contests.
The problem was they also scored two runs or fewer in 45 games this year, a whopping 28 percent of the season. They were 7-38 in those contests.
What that tells us is, in nearly half the games this season (73 of 162), the Orioles scored runs in bunches or barely any at all.
And that's what the focus needs to be for 2017 and beyond. The Orioles have to fix the inconsistency of the offense, that all-or-nothing approach. Call it that, though, and the lineup's architect, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, takes a little offense.
"I don't think the guys we bring in are all-or-nothing. We like to have power throughout our lineup, OK? That's been a consistent theme," Duquette said. "The power plays pretty well in our ballpark. It helps us. We had 50 wins at home this year. I think our fans enjoyed seeing that. When you get into a close game, yes, you have to execute offensively. But the power plays. They don't have any fielders on the other side of the fence."
You also can't score much when you don't make productive outs, move runners over or steal bases.
When you're completely reliant on the homer, bad things happen when you don't put the ball over the fence.
Consider this: The Orioles homered 45 more times than the Boston Red Sox this year; the Red Sox, though, scored 134 more runs. The Cleveland Indians hit 68 fewer homers than the Orioles and still scored 33 more runs.
We all harp on the fact the Orioles aren't good with runners in scoring position. They hit .260 in those situations this year (ninth of 15 AL teams) and had a .329 OBP (13th of 15) -- bad, but not awful.
Look a little closer, though, and you see the Orioles aren't actually getting into those situations. They had the fewest number of at-bats with runners in scoring position than any AL team, more than 300 fewer than the Red Sox. Therefore, despite a mediocre average with RISP, the Orioles had the fewest RBIs in the league and second fewest runs scored in those situations.
What that tells us is the Orioles aren't doing enough to get to second and/or third base. A lack of speed on the basepaths is one major reason; the Orioles stole just 19 bases and attempted only 32 in 2016. You have to go back to the 1960 Kansas City Athletics to find a less daring team on the bases (they stole 16 of 27 in a 154-game schedule).
The Orioles had, by far, not only the fewest stolen bases or attempts, but also the worst stealing percentage (59.4 percent) in the league. Rule V outfielder Joey Rickard led the Orioles with four steals, and he stopped playing after July 20 due to injury.
The funny thing is, most Orioles had the green light to run if they wanted. But, for one, most weren't particularly fast. And, two, they were waiting for the big blast. The mentality with these big boppers was everyone was in scoring position when they came to the plate.
Which is fine when the home runs are flowing. But when they aren't, well, that's a major problem.
The Orioles have made the postseason three times in the last five seasons, going 6-8 in 14 postseason games.
In their eight playoff losses, the Orioles have been outscored 19-36 -- that's 2.38 runs scored per game against 4.5 allowed. In their six wins, they've outscored the opposition, 31-14, averaging 5.17 runs per game and giving up just 2.3.
The postseason has really been a microcosm of these Orioles teams and how they've been constructed. In six of those eight Orioles playoff losses, they scored two runs or fewer. Heck, they actually scored three runs or fewer in nine of their 14 postseason games.
That's mind-boggling for a team built on power.
And that should be a wakeup call to Duquette, Orioles manager Buck Showalter and the other decision-makers.
This lineup needs to be diverse. It needs to have guys who can get on base, steal, force the issue when the home run isn't there. It needs a legitimate leadoff hitter, if possible.
That's what this offseason has to be about, finding a couple more complementary pieces to join outfielders Hyun Soo Kim and Rickard as guys consistently on base when the bashers come to the plate.
You'd love for those bashers to be more disciplined. But that battle isn't working. So attack it from a different angle, and replace some of the sluggers with gnats who can annoy the opposition when the long ball takes a vacation.
Being balanced is how you go deep into the postseason. That offensive balance has been lacking in Baltimore.
Issue 226: October 2016