The Baltimore Orioles have made the playoffs two of the past three seasons, even advancing to the American League Championship Series in 2014, but the series that got away from them was the 2012 AL Division Series against the Yankees. That was the year, I think, the thing that never happened was supposed to happen.
The Orioles' 2012 season was the most unlikely of all their successful seasons. Coming into that year, they hadn't had a winning season since 1997. They had finished last in the AL East for four consecutive seasons, and there was little reason to expect them to reverse that trend. The franchise was directionless, with a smart manager in Buck Showalter but little else, and went through a messy search for a general manager. They still won 93 games, and it's still sort of difficult today to figure out how they did it. This was the first example of Showalter's teams outperforming their Pythagorean record, and a delight to famished Orioles fans essentially from Day 1 of the season (a 4-2 win over Minnesota featuring a rare 2012 sterling starting pitching performance from young phenom Jake Arietta).
The season had everything: A true breakout season from Adam Jones, who hit 32 homers and stole 16 bases; the all-or-nothing glory of Chris Davis, who finally found the home run swing predicted for him as a prospect in the Rangers organization; a terrific bullpen coming together; Camden Yards rocking again; and finally the August debut of a 19-year-old kid named Manny Machado, who had so much talent vibrating through him that it seemed too much for one body to contain. The day after Machado was called up, he hit two homers, and the possibilities were endless. Just adding to his legend … the same Orioles fan caught both of Machado's homers.
The Orioles were baseball's best story, a jewel MLB franchise that had fallen into disrepair but emerged triumphant at the least expected moment. They beat the Rangers in the first-ever AL Wild Card Game and prepared to face the hated Yankees in the ALDS. They split the first two games, two in Baltimore and two in New York, and were down 3-0 in the top of the eighth in Game 5. But then a rally: Matt Wieters singled off CC Sabathia. Machado walked. After a Mark Reynolds strikeout (of all things!), Lew Ford and Robert Andino both singled. The O's were down 3-1. The bases were loaded. This was exactly the sort of comeback this Baltimore team, against all odds, had made its fans believe in.
And then Nate McLouth struck out and J.J. Hardy grounded out and the Orioles went 1-2-3 in the ninth, and the Yanks advanced to an ALCS they'd end up getting swept in. I think that was supposed to be the year for the O's. The gods chose 2012 to be their magical season. But it didn't happen.
The Orioles would eventually make it to an ALCS in 2014, but the Royals swept them, and the only playoff appearance since then was the brutal "apparently Zach Britton has gone missing" AL Wild Card Game loss last season. For the past five years, the Orioles have been better than statistical analysts had predicted -- remember, they won more games than from 2012-15 than any other AL team -- on such a consistent basis that a cottage industry sprouted up trying to figure out how they did it. But even as the Orioles defied expectations, you knew there had to someday be a reckoning. The team was getting older, with a weak farm system and some tough budget decisions on the horizon, not least of which is Machado's pending free agency, and that's not to mention the team's increasing inability to cobble together a non-nightmarish rotation. Not even Showalter could keep pulling rabbits out of his hat, could he?
In 2017, so far, he hasn't. After a gruesome sweep by the Cubs over the weekend, Baltimore is now seven games under. 500, nine games out of first place in the AL East and 5 1/2 out of a Wild Card spot, with five full teams between them.
Thus: The Orioles look like they could be big sellers at the trade deadline. Ken Rosenthal, reporting for Facebook now I guess, notes that GM Dan Duquette is now looking to trade all his relievers (including Britton) as well as outfielder Seth Smith. The Orioles may have to do something they have been loathe to do for decades: plan exclusively for the future. It's probably for the best.
But an argument could be made that the Orioles aren't going far enough. According to Rosenthal, the O's are not willing to listen to offers for Adam Jones or, especially, Machado, even though Machado, like Jones, is a free agent after next season. Machado has had a difficult season at the worst possible time, but he's still expected to sign a massive deal with someone after next season … and it may not be the Orioles, unless the two sides somehow agree to a huge extension between now and then. The relievers will bring guys who can help, but Machado -- even this year's struggling Machado -- would reinvigorate the franchise.
And the O's need that boost, because this era of the Orioles looks like it's over. There's no way you look at the 2018 season and think Baltimore is more likely to win their division than it is right now. Boston and New York are juggernauts again after developing high-end young talent, and those two teams could be even better next year. The Orioles don't have a bunch of can't-miss prospects coming; they have only one player -- catcher Chance Sisco -- in MLB.com's top 100 prospects, and he's only No. 84. They have that crazy deal for Davis through 2022 and a Mark Trumbo deal, but otherwise, their books are mostly clear. This team is not going to get better, and their competition is going to be tougher. The window has slammed shut. It may be a long time until it opens again.
No matter how the Orioles react to this -- whether they change their mind and think about dealing Machado and Jones or whether they decide to overpay for middling free-agent pitchers this offseason to make one last run -- it is a shame that it has come to this. The Orioles have been one of baseball's more pleasant, surprising stories for five years now, a daily testament to Showalter's smarts and a reinvigoration of a great baseball fan base. Orioles fans waited more than a decade to have a competitive, exciting team again, and for five years, these Orioles, against all logic and reason, delivered. Royals fans were in the wilderness for decades but were rewarded with two World Series and one championship. The Orioles never quite got there. It's a shame. Showalter deserved it, Adam Jones deserved it, those fans definitely deserved it. But deserve's got nothing to do with it.
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