After 14 years in baseball hell, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles got back into the business of winning ballgames. In fact, the Orioles won enough to make the playoffs in that magical return to baseball relevance.
After a slight downturn in 2013 — with a record of 85-77 and tied for 3rd place — the Orioles came back with a vengeance in 2014 and won the American League East with 96 wins. Aided greatly by free-agent slugger Nelson Cruz on a 1-year contract, and the trade on July 31 for pitcher Andrew Miller, the O’s stunned the Detroit Tigers in the Division Round, sweeping them in three games to set up the A.L. Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals.
In four miserably frustrating games, the Royals dispensed of the Orioles in a dominating fashion and sent the team limping and disoriented into the offseason. The final game of that series was on Oct. 15, 2014.
By Oct. 30, 2014, the Orioles granted free agency to eight players. Among them were three key players — Cruz, Miller and outfielder Nick Markakis. It’s fair to say that the seeds of the dismal season we are in the midst of now, were planted with the decisions made on either re-signing those three players or figuring out how to replace them.
Normally, a team that is exposed as thoroughly as the Orioles were in that series against the Royals, is hellbent on getting better for the next go-around. In looking over the 2015 Opening Day roster, it seems the club’s thinking was that in place of Cruz, a returning Delmon Young would get most of those at-bats; in place of Miller, Wesley Wright was signed as a free agent; and for longtime Orioles standout Markakis, the team traded two young left-handed pitchers, Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault, to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Travis Snider.
In Cruz’s case, he turned 34 on July 1, 2014. The Orioles wanted Cruz back and offered him a three-year contract at the same annual rate the Mariners offered for four, and Cruz took the longer term deal. After slugging 40 home runs and knocking in 108 RBIs in 2014, Cruz has gone on to bat .288 with 87 doubles, 148 home runs and 372 RBIs. Young was released by the Orioles on July 9,, 2015, having hit two home runs and knocking in 16 RBIs.
I was being somewhat facetious when mentioning Wright in the same breath as Miller. But Miller was the second lefty in the pen for those last two months of 2014, behind Zach Britton, once acquired from Boston for pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez.
Miller signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Yankees. He only pitched for New York for 1½ seasons before being flipped at the deadline to the Indians in 2016 for four prospects, including two former no. 1 picks, Clint Frazier and now uber-prospect Justus Sheffield.
Plain and simple, the Orioles just never seemed to engage in any pursuit of one of the greatest difference-maker relievers we have seen over the past 20 years. This after giving up one of their best pitching prospects in Rodriguez.
And last but not least, there is Markakis. Markakis is probably the most complicated of the three and the most painful because like Manny Machado, Markakis was an Orioles draft pick.
The club was well aware that Markakis was having neck issues and needed a cervical fusion surgery that off-season of 2014. The club tried to get Markakis on a short-term deal of two seasons. Markakis was suddenly contacted by the Atlanta Braves, who were offering four years and $44 million.
The problem was, and is — part of the dangers of allowing your players to enter free agency — the Braves came to town, took Markakis out to dinner and put a deal on the table. But the Braves wanted an answer, and gave Markakis 24 hours to respond. When he couldn’t get a return call from the Orioles, off he went to the Braves. Markakis is having the best year of his career and was selected by fans to play in his first All-Star Game this season.
Not only did Orioles management make bad calls on Cruz, Miller and Markakis, but they doubled down in various other transactions along the way. There are consequences from making bad decisions. For the Orioles in 2018, the chickens of those bad decisions have come home to roost in ways the club couldn’t have fathomed.
Stan “The Fan” Charles is founder and publisher of PressBox.