When the season began, with the Orioles coming fresh off of a trouncing of the rest of the American League East, nothing less than a return to the postseason was the marker of success. In the aftermath of the team losing 12 of their last 14 games, it seems fairly safe to declare that quest a failure. The day of mathematical elimination is a couple of weeks away at least, but at 6.5 games out with 29 to play and five teams to leap frog, it's over.
The time has come to adjust our expectations for the last month of the season, not because we want to, but because there's not really any other choice. It's either that or spend the rest of the time wallowing in all of the things that have failed for the O's to get them to this point. That's just not any fun. Yes, the corner outfield situation has been a complete and total failure for nearly the entire year. Nothing we can do to change it now.
With the acknowledgement that it's all a disappointment compared to making the playoffs, what has to happen over the next month of the season to help us feel like there was some kind of success for the team in 2015?
1. Find a way back to a winning record.
At this point, thanks to the struggle of the last two weeks, the Orioles would have to close out the season with an 18-11 record to end up at 82-80 and keep their streak of winning seasons alive another year. That sounds like a tough task even without considering that 16/29 of the remaining games are against teams who are currently heading for the postseason - the very teams against whom the O's have struggled all season.
I don't expect it to happen and I'm not sure that I would even if they were playing bad teams. The lone 18-win month for the O's this year was June. Yet I hope for another as purely a moral victory. Is there functionally much difference between 82 wins and 79 wins? No - except that one is the record of a loser and one is the record of a winner, just barely.
The 85-77 record of 2013 was a disappointment compared to 2012's heights, but it was good enough that it let us feel like the team was still on an upward trajectory, as they well proved last year. Ending up with 82 wins or more gives us hope that the good days aren't gone again. Another losing season leaves us wondering if it'll be 14 more years before they win again.
2. Have even one returning starting pitcher have a nice September.
I'm not asking for much here. Just one of the non-Chen starters to close out the season on a high note, so at the very least we can go into next season pretending that the 2016 rotation isn't going to just be one giant question mark. Preferably this starting pitcher will be Kevin Gausman, so that we can convince ourselves that he might actually have a nice career with the Orioles instead of being like Jake Arrieta - destined to be awful here and magically discover how to pitch when traded elsewhere.
It would be nice if it was any of them, though. Ubaldo Jimenez will be here for another couple of years, so if he could at least close out the season decently, that would be nice. Chris Tillman's probably not going anywhere. How about he gives us some reason to believe he'll be able to return to what was successful with him the last few years? If Miguel Gonzalez could do the same, that would also be nice, though it's not even clear how much he'll pitch the rest of the way.
3. The outline of a successful 2016 bullpen starts to appear.
This is already starting to happen to an extent. Zach Britton has given us no reason not to believe he'll be able to pick up next season where he's left off. Darren O'Day is probably headed elsewhere, but maybe Mychal Givens can slot in as a power pitcher in the eighth inning. Brad Brach has been a nice option throughout the season, even if he's walked a few too many batters.
One thing that would be very nice is if the Orioles strange 2015 Jason Garcia experiment could yield some results in the future. Did you know that since coming off of the disabled list in August, Garcia has pitched 9.2 innings over seven games to the tune of a 1.86 ERA? That's actually good! Huh. Maybe there really was something wrong with him that he was able to have heal while he was on the DL? That would be something.
If nothing else, at least he'll be optionable next year, so he won't be taking up a roster spot no matter what. That can get taken up by next year's bizarre Rule 5 experiment.
4. Manny Machado turns out to be the shortstop of the future after all.
We've been tantalized in two out of the last three games with Machado as the starting shortstop, and Machado responded by making at least one great play in each of those games where he started there. Keep finding out if he can play there, because if he can, and he hits like he's done this year, he'll be one of the best players in the league next year.
It may be that this would be a tough sell to J.J. Hardy, who would probably have to move over to third base in this scenario. But, well, when you have an injury-riddled season, looking (to me) a step slower particularly on balls to the left, maybe that's when it's time to shift to the hot corner, which is less demanding of a long range. In this hypothetical, perhaps Hardy would end up less bruised and once again able to hit better than .222/.253/.315 again. That would be nice.
5. Jonathan Schoop keeps hitting home runs.
By OPS+, which takes hitters' OPS, adjusts for parks, and compares them to one another, Schoop is the third-best Orioles hitter this season. A big reason why that has been is that he's hit 11 home runs in his 219 plate appearances. Of course, "on pace for" is only worth so much, but if you were to extrapolate that out to a full season's worth of hitting, that's something like a 33 home run pace. That's no joke.
In 2015, Schoop has looked a lot like an Adam Jones type of hitter. He will frustrate us by chasing pitches outside of the zone and not really walking all that much. But pitchers will make mistakes, because everyone makes mistakes, and those mistakes turn into clutch home runs in close games.
With all of the pending free agents, most if not all of whom will likely not end up returning to the Orioles, there will be plenty of uncertainty facing the Orioles in the coming offseason. But, if they can hit on a few of the above over the next month, things won't end up feeling quite as grim as if there was a complete tailspin into oblivion.