Plenty of questions surround Orioles after late-season implosion

The signature game of the Baltimore Orioles' season took place in late April. With the city's streets awash in strife after the death of Freddie Gray, the Orioles closed the Camden Yards turnstiles and beat the Chicago White Sox 8-2 in an empty ballpark. Amid that bizarre and emotional backdrop, the Baltimore players spoke passionately of their personal investment in the city and their desire to make the fan base proud.

More than four months later, the box scores are grim and a three-week anticlimax awaits. This isn't the way it was supposed to end.

After three straight winning seasons that included two playoff appearances and an American League East title, the Orioles are in play-out-the-string mode. They've dropped 15 of their past 19 games and are jockeying for fourth place in the division with the Boston Red Sox, who have endured every disruption and setback imaginable this summer.

In the Baltimore clubhouse, players acknowledge the disappointment of the season while taking pains not to relegate it to the past tense.

"This is my fourth year here and we've done a lot of winning, and this is uncharacteristic," said reliever Darren O'Day. "We haven't played as well as we wanted to, but I don't think it's time to eulogize the team yet."

Still, when FanGraphs gives the Orioles a 0.2 percent chance to make the playoffs ... yeah ... it's over.

As manager Buck Showalter observes, the introspection and hard questions are probably best saved for the offseason, when the Orioles can take a deep breath and not worry about a three-game series in Kansas City or the rigors of navigating that killer Toronto Blue Jays lineup.

"It's a snowball time of the year," Showalter said. "There's so much positive and negative feeding frenzy this time of year, nothing is as good or bad as it seems."

But you don't have to look far to explain why the Orioles are a .478 team and an AL East afterthought:

• Baltimore's starting pitchers rank 13th in the American League in innings pitched and ERA. The fate of the 2015 Orioles is best embodied by pitcher Bud Norris, a 15-game winner in 2014 who was horrendous (2-9, 7.06 ERA) in 18 appearances for Baltimore this season. The Orioles released him a month ago, and he's trying to revive his career in San Diego.

Norris is one of several Baltimore starters who have failed to perform to expectations. Chris Tillman, fresh off two straight 200-inning seasons, has regressed in multiple categories and is tied for 66th among MLB starters with a quality start percentage of 46 percent. Ubaldo Jimenez helped carry the staff with a 7-4 record and a 2.88 ERA in the first half, but he's 3-5 with a 6.88 ERA since the All-Star break.

• The Orioles lost left fielder Nelson Cruz to Seattle and right fielder Nick Markakis to Atlanta through free agency last winter. The 10 players who've replaced Cruz in left field have combined to rank 29th in the majors at the position with a .602 OPS. The Orioles have fared better in right, but the 11 players they've used there have a combined .318 on base percentage compared to .342 when Markakis the held down the position in 2014.

• The Baltimore offense has amassed the fourth-highest strikeout total in the majors while ranking 25th in walks. The Orioles have a "tee high and let it fly" mindset, as outfielder Adam Jones likes to put it. But a lack of plate discipline can make it a challenge to score runs when the ball isn't leaving the yard.

• The Orioles are 28-45 on the road. Among the 30 MLB teams, only the Phillies (23-49), Braves (22-52), Marlins (25-43) and Reds (26-42) are worse away from home.

• After leading the American League with 57 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014, according to Baseball Info Solutions, the O's are a more modest plus-3 this season. The bulk of the good news has come from Manny Machado at third base and Jones in center field.

That makes for a relatively extensive check list of items that Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette and his front-office team must address as they watch the postseason unfold from the outside.

"For the Orioles to get back to playing winning baseball, we need to do a lot of things better," Duquette said. "We need to draft better. We need to develop better. We need to procure players better. We need to coach better, and we need play better. We need to do all of those things better."

A 'big winter' awaits

Ultimately, when the final numbers are parsed, Orioles fans are going to be less concerned with where the team stands after the 162nd game than what the 25-man roster looks like next spring in Sarasota, Fla. As Showalter readily concedes, "It's going to be a big winter."

Chris Davis, who leads the majors with 153 home runs since the start of the 2012 season, is set to make a mother lode through free agency. Catcher Matt Wieters, starter Wei-Yin Chen and O'Day will also hit the open market in November.

The departures are particularly worrisome in Baltimore because the Orioles have one of the worst farm systems in the game. ESPN's Keith Law ranked Baltimore's system as the 22nd-best in baseball entering the season, and Baseball America rated the Orioles 28th. Elite pitching prospects Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy have endured multiple injury setbacks, and the pipeline is short of impact-position-player talent.

First baseman Christian Walker, rated the franchise's best position prospect by Baseball America, had a middling season at Triple-A, with a .257/.324/.423 slash line and 18 homers in 138 games with Norfolk in the International League. Get beyond Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who are both 23, and the O's don't have a lot of young pups on the major league roster.

Duquette leaves open the possibility of some less experienced prospects getting an opportunity with the big club in spring training. That includes first baseman Trey Mancini, who logged a .981 OPS in 84 games with Double-A Bowie, and catcher Chance Sisco, who reached Bowie at a mere 20 years old.

In the meantime, the Orioles' disappointing season has generated rumblings of internal strife between the front office and uniformed personnel in the Baltimore organization. The scouting community buzzes about rifts on any number of topics -- ranging from minor-league pitching development director Rick Peterson's influence in the organization to Duquette's decision to release outfielder Delmon Young in July. Young still hasn't signed with another club, while Nolan Reimold, who returned from the paternity list to replace him on the roster, has hit .234 with three home runs in 42 games.

Those might seem like small triggers for discord. But internal strains are magnified for teams with less margin for error. When the Blue Jays were making a splash by acquiring David Price and Troy Tulowitzki at the trade deadline, the Orioles added Gerardo Parra and are constantly dipping into the Norfolk and Bowie rosters for reinforcements.

"It's all the crap that surfaces with losing," said one AL personnel man.

Showalter downplays any rumors of friction between Baltimore's front office and the on-field staff and players. He maintains that his relationship with Duquette is solid and says they communicate regularly.

"We talk about everything, every day," Showalter said. "Dan is frustrated, too. It's that time of year where everybody wants to point fingers or come up with exact reasons why teams aren't having a good season. People want to put it in a box, but it's not just one thing. It's a myriad of things."

Duquette, for his part, praised Peterson for his "very good track record in helping pitchers with their deliveries and their results," and dismissed speculation about internal discord in Baltimore as idle chatter among scouts.

"When it comes to gossiping about the organization, I don't think there's any place for that in a winning organization," Duquette said.

"Anybody that wants to talk about an isolated personnel decision is thinking about the wrong things. They're not thinking about their job or helping the club or their career long-term. In the game of baseball, if you don't have a clear mind, it's very difficult to go out there and do your job."

Challenges to come

The Orioles have counted on undiscovered gems and pleasant surprises in recent years. Duquette unearths them, and Showalter cultivates an environment in which they can thrive. Steve Pearce was a wonderful feel-good story in 2014, when he came out of nowhere to rank ninth in the league with a 5.9 Wins Above Replacement. His performance helped drive the narrative when Duquette won the executive of the year award last November.

This year, Pearce is hitting .221 with a WAR of minus-0.2. Travis Snider was a disappointment before moving on to Pittsburgh, and the O's have squeezed only so much production out of Jimmy Paredes, David Lough, Ryan Flaherty, et al.

"All the little piecing together that worked for Buck last year didn't work this year," said an MLB scout who follows the Orioles. "It's not easy to do. They just didn't have as many pleasant surprises this year."

Shortstop J.J. Hardy's multiple visits to the disabled list hurt the Orioles' continuity, and only three Baltimore regulars (Machado, Jones and Davis) have appeared in more than 100 games this season. When Showalter fielded a lineup with Junior Lake in the No. 8 spot and Paul Janish batting ninth against Price on Saturday in Toronto, it was the definitive sign that things haven't worked out according to plan.

Strangely enough, the Orioles seemed poised for takeoff after Henry Urrutia's walkoff homer beat the New York Mets 5-4 on Aug. 19. Then they dropped four straight at home to the Minnesota Twins to begin their fade to oblivion.

"All the way up until mid-August, we were setting ourselves up for a good run at it," Jones said. "I'm not disappointed. I've been here when June comes around and you're planning your vacation. So the last four years have been amazing. Even now, I know it's optimistic to think we can get in a wild card game. But what the hell am I here for?"

Amid increasingly long odds, the Baltimore players and coaches will have to rely on personal pride and their internal combustion engines to get them through the next three weeks.

"I always wake up in the morning like we're ready to run off 10 in a row," Showalter said.

Barring that unlikely scenario, the Orioles will have to simply do their best and hope to resolve their issues in November, December and January. The O's have had a nice little run since 2012. But their window of opportunity appears to be closing, and there might be a lot more of this to come.