In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Orioles were at last mathematically eliminated from the American League wild card race for this season. The final blow came as a result of Monday's defeat at the hands of the Blue Jays and an Astros victory over the Mariners in Seattle.
For over a month now it's felt like only a matter of time, though the team managed to keep rallying to win enough games to keep dim hopes alive, at least until this past weekend when they were shut out for an entire weekend by the Red Sox. Not that it will make you feel any better, but even if the Orioles had somehow managed to win the last four games that they instead lost, they'd still be facing a deficit of 2.5 games with six to play, and three teams still to pass.
That was never a very likely caper for them to pull off. It would have been nicer if they had held on for longer, not so much for the sake of this season as to give us, the fans, a bit more hope going into next year. Perhaps we could have at least had the likely returning members of the starting rotation look solid over the last month or so, for instance. That just hasn't happened.
Instead, it's finally time to say, "Maybe next year." That it took so long to get to that point is a reminder that this kind of season is a lot better than the kind with which we were acquainted from 1998-2011. Even if the 2015 Orioles don't win another game - a miserable outcome - they would still be better than all but one of the losing Orioles teams of the 2000s. We experienced a lot of completely bad teams in that time. We did not have so many run-of-the-mill bad teams. They are not astoundingly bad. They just weren't good enough.
It's tough to turn an eye to next year at this point in time, mostly because who even knows who will be on the team next year? This O's team is unique among those in recent memory for having so many departing free agents who are good players, who have been on good Orioles teams, who we would like to see them keep. Nobody much missed Luke Scott or Cesar Izturis. Chris Davis, Wei-Yin Chen, and Darren O'Day will surely be missed. So will Matt Wieters, not so much for expected future performance as for what he once represented.
Problems the Orioles face heading into next season
There's no considering next year without thinking about the many giant question marks that will face the team. With the way the starting rotation has pitched this year, who will stick around from that unit? Will they bring in someone via free agency to take one of the open spots? If the 2016 Orioles rotation does not significantly improve on the 2015 version's results, the team will likely not be going anywhere good regardless of what else happens.
Even if the rotation gets better, they'll also be facing the likely uncertainty of losing their biggest power bat in Chris Davis. Will the Orioles back up enough armored cars full of $100 bills onto Davis' lawn to keep him? If they do so, will that prove to be a good decision? If not, who the heck is going to play first base? The prospect of the Orioles picking who has the best spring between Christian Walker and Trey Mancini and having that be the Davis replacement is not an encouraging one.
Health will be a question too. Miguel Gonzalez has battled through problems that hurt his performance in 2015. So, it seems, have J.J. Hardy and Adam Jones. If Hardy doesn't bounce back, what will the O's do? If Gonzalez doesn't, they'll be stuck with a struggling, multi-million dollar starting pitcher much like they were with Bud Norris this year.
All of this is assuming that everyone who was actually good and healthy this year will be good and healthy next year. As we learned this season, that's simply not always the case. The O's will need Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop to stay healthy. They'll need Zach Britton and whoever joins him in the back end of the bullpen to remain healthy and effective all year.
There are many questions and uncertainties that the team will face for next season. They won't be able to do much to start solving any of those issues until after the World Series, but hopefully over the next month they can start working out some answers that will keep the team in the postseason chase all the way to the end - or at least get them back above .500.