The Orioles wrapped up the worst season in franchise history on a rare positive note, blanking the Houston Astros on Sunday in what may have been the swan song for both center fielder Adam Jones and manager Buck Showalter.
Now, the Orioles head into an offseason rife with questions. One looms larger than the rest: Who will be the manager and general manager for the club next season?
The contracts of Showalter, the club’s skipper since August 2010, and Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ executive vice president since November 2011, expire this month. The two baseball lifers, who were at the helm for three Orioles’ postseason teams, face uncertain futures.
Showalter and Duquette deserve credit for restoring winning baseball to Baltimore after more than a decade of futility. During a five-year span from 2012-2016, the Orioles won the most games in the American League, going 444-366 and earning an AL East pennant in 2014. Nobody will soon forget those accomplishments.
Having said that, it’s time for a change. The Orioles are in dire need of a fresh start, which means finding a new GM and manager to steer the ship.
Simply put, when a team puts up a season as historically awful as this year’s 47-115 Orioles — who tied for the fourth-most losses of the modern era — maintaining the status quo can’t be an option.
What’s hard to swallow is that the Orioles not only lost 115 games but lost 115 games in a season in which they thought they might contend. That’s where they differ from those other 115-loss teams, who knew they were going to be bad. The 1962 New York Mets (120 losses) were an expansion team and never had a chance of success. The 2003 Detroit Tigers (119 losses) were in rebuild mode from the beginning and threw untested youngsters to the wolves. The 1916 Philadelphia Athletics (117 losses) had traded away nearly their entire roster in a cost-cutting measure.
The Orioles, though, started the 2018 season thinking they could still make a run at the playoffs, ignoring the warning signs of a dreadful 2017 September (4-19) and a 75-87 record. It’s why they didn’t trade Manny Machado, Zach Britton or other pending free agents during the offseason. It’s why they signed Alex Cobb to a four-year, $57-million in spring training to bolster their pitching staff.
The Orioles were making one last bid for glory before their best players went their separate ways, which made their catastrophic collapse all the more stunning.
The season derailed immediately, with the club losing five games in a row after an Opening Day walkoff win. For whatever reason, the Orioles never could pull themselves out of their tailspin. Loss after loss piled up, and the club was buried by the end of April in a season that snowballed hopelessly out of control.
The Orioles were depressingly consistent with their losing. They never won more than nine games in any calendar month. Only once did they win more than three games in a row. And they had just two series sweeps all season: a two-gamer against the New York Mets in June and a three-gamer over the Toronto Blue Jays at the end of August. By contrast, the Orioles were swept 17 times in a series of two or more games.
Even the Kansas City Royals, who for most of the season were side-by-side with the Orioles in MLB’s basement, found a late-season spark after committing to a rebuild. They won 19 of their final 33 games, as their young team gelled and several prospects put up promising performances.
That didn’t happen in Baltimore. The Orioles lost for four months with a roster of experienced veterans, then lost for two more months with a team of untested youngsters. No combination of players could find a way to win, and the coaching staff seemed helpless to improve the situation.
All season long, the club’s defense and fundamentals — which had been a strength under Showalter in past seasons — abandoned them. The sloppy play, and lack of improvement over the course of the season, didn’t go unnoticed by Orioles’ veterans.
“It’s extremely disheartening when you kind of play this sloppy game, extra bases, missed coverages, missed execution on all kinds of different things,” said catcher Caleb Joseph after one particularly gruesome loss in Tampa Bay in early September. “It’s one thing if you’re playing clean games that you can see everybody kind of improving, and you can see guys moving in the right direction and kind of taking advantage of opportunities, but that’s just not what we’re seeing.”
Let’s be clear: Showalter wasn’t the reason the Orioles fell apart in 2018. No manager could’ve led this team to success. But eventually, any manager’s message can begin to be ignored — as Showalter himself has often acknowledged. Even a skipper as successful and well-respected as Showalter reaches a point where he may not be able to click with his team. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just baseball. Sometimes a club simply needs a new voice.
A managerial change would, most likely, result in sweeping changes to the coaching staff, too. That’s probably for the best. Pitching coach Roger McDowell has found little success in his two years in Baltimore. The Orioles, who had a 4.22 ERA in 2016 under former pitching coach Dave Wallace, have seen that mark inflate to 4.97 in 2017 and an MLB-worst 5.18 this season, while young pitchers such as Dylan Bundy have failed to develop as hoped. Meanwhile, the Orioles’ offense, led by fourth-year hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, had the lowest batting average (.239) and on-base percentage (.298) in the AL this year, and few hitters performed up to expectations.
The Orioles’ housecleaning, though, shouldn’t be limited to the field. They could also use a revamp in the front office, where layers of bureaucracy and confusion have run rampant in recent years. In July, I detailed the Orioles’ many mistakes and poor choices that led to this disastrous 2018 season, and most of them spawned from the fact that Orioles’ key decision-makers often weren’t on the same page.
In fairness, the Orioles have already taken steps to improve that situation. Majority owner Peter Angelos has ceded control of club operations to his sons, John and Lou, who have steered the team in a new direction (including a renewed commitment to the international amateur market, which was lacking under the previous regime). They handed Duquette the reins for the Orioles’ flurry of selloff trades in July, and he pulled off five deals that netted 15 prospects and international bonus slot money.
Still, while Duquette got the rebuild started, there’s plenty more work to be done. What better way for the Angelos sons to make their own imprint on the team than to hand-pick a new general manager? They inherited Duquette, but with the offseason now upon them, they can take the time to sift through other promising candidates and find one whose vision for the club best matches their own.
The times are very much a-changing in Baltimore. The overhaul of the roster is in full swing; 11 players who were on the Orioles’ Opening Day roster have already been jettisoned from the organization, with plenty more to come this winter. Now, the Orioles need to take it a step further.
If the Orioles are fully committed to a rebuild, they need to reassess every aspect of their organization — not just who’s on the field, but who’s in the dugout and the front office. No single person was at fault for the debacle that unfolded in Baltimore this season, but everybody shoulders at least some responsibility.
There’s no time like the present for the Orioles to start from scratch. The sooner they can put together a new front office and coaching staff — and distance themselves from their 2018 disaster — the better.