Still in the Hunt for Playoffs, Orioles Fighting for Relevance

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Buck Showalter (Kenya Allen/Pressbox)
Buck Showalter (Kenya Allen/Pressbox)

by Stan “The Fan” Charles/Pressbox

Since the All-Star break, the Baltimore Orioles have done what they have done all season — frustrate and tease fans.

The Orioles’ 18-17 second-half record leaves them with an unimpressive 62-61 season mark, and with 39 games to go, it is looking more and more likely the team will be on the outside looking in when postseason play begins.

Hungry from the excitement of last year’s deep playoff run, Orioles fans watched as the front office offered up a blue print for 2015 that seemed half-hearted in its approach. Sure, a team cannot simply sign every player it needs to sign at large salary increases. There is, after all, not enough money to go around to every one of the club’s looming free agents.

The losses of the team’s key free agents at the end of 2014 — lefty reliever Andrew Miller, outfielder Nick Markakis and designated hitter Nelson Cruz — were explained away with logical rationales. But the club’s projected replacements for those three — Alejandro De Aza, Everth Cabrera, Delmon Young, Chris Parmelee and David Lough — didn’t pan out.

In each case, save Parmelee’s, the Orioles were left to eat portions of those contracts, the baseball equivalent to football’s dead money.

 

The Orioles reasoned that if first baseman Chris Davis, third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters all came back and had strong seasons, the club would have more than made up for the offense it lost in Markakis and Cruz. While Machado and Davis did come back and produce strong numbers, Wieters has been underwhelming in his production. Let’s also add in that two solid contributors from a year ago — shortstop J.J. Hardy and utility man Steve Pearce — brought little offense to the table.

On the starting pitching side of the equation, as it seems is always the case, the projected performances of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez were far more problematic than the offense’s troubles.

For much of the first half, Jimenez experienced a resurgence, which was a reasonable facsimile of who they thought he’d be when they signed him to a large free-agent contract last year.

Tillman didn’t get in gear for the first two months of the season, but was his steady self in July, before an ankle injury caused him to regress again.

Chen, as has often been the case, seems to have again been the bad luck starter, who hardly ever has any wiggle room to work with when it comes to run production or has been the hard-luck guy when one of the relievers has a poor night.

The team’s most consistent starter from the second half of 2012 through June 9 has been Gonzalez. When he left that game after 4.1 shutout innings June 9, his ERA for the season was 3.33. Since coming back 16 days later, he was hardly the same pitcher. In 11 starts and 58.1 innings since, Gonzalez has allowed 42 earned runs, which figures out to a 6.48 ERA in those 11 starts (amazingly, the club was able to go 5-6 during that span).

Former Orioles starter Bud Norris was an abomination the entire season — pitching to an ERA higher than 7.00 while going 2-9. Hardly the stuff a frugal team can accept for $8.8 million. The club’s fall-back plan was Kevin Gausman, and while the Gausman of the past four starts is starting to pay some dividends, he is still a work in progress.

As manager Buck Showalter says during the tough times, nobody is going to feel sorry for the Baltimore Orioles. Still, the way this club was put together, it left itself little margin for error. And it seems as if everything that could go wrong pretty much went wrong during the first five months of the season.

So, what of this September? More than likely, fans will get more of a look at pitching prospects Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson when they come back off the disabled list. Outfielder Dariel Alvarez and first baseman Christian Walker may get some chances to state their cases for 2016.

However, as the Orioles embark on their seven-game stretch in Kansas City and Texas Aug. 24-30, they are still in the hunt for that second American League wild-card spot. They have made their beds and will have an uphill battle to beat out the Rangers, Angels and Twins for a spot in the postseason.

But while there is no consolation for not making the playoffs, the Orioles are playing for something intrinsic as well — simply not back-sliding to a point that gains made in 2012, 2013 and 2014 could be rendered meaningless.

Each season has a way of unfolding in a distinct fashion. The Orioles, under executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and Showalter, have played only a small number of games in four seasons that didn’t hold some meaning.

Maybe the results and finish fans wanted in 2015 is not still attainable. But the 25 players on the roster and the September call-ups still have something to play for: pride and relevancy.

Finishing strong will say something about the culture that has been built, and possibly how quickly this nucleus can get back to the lofty standards that have been set.



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