September can be challenging if your team isn’t one of the 10 still playing postseason baseball. With eight games remaining, the Orioles are five games back of a playoff spot and would have five teams to hurdle over to get there. They haven’t been mathematically eliminated yet, but it’s not looking good. In recent years, this part of the season has been exciting around Charm City. Lately, my Facebook memories have been filled with pictures of the O’s winning the American League East or preparing for a wild card game. Those were some good times.
There was plenty of good that came out of the 2017 season. Jonathan Schoop emerged as an All-Star by improving his plate discipline and hitting for more power. The Birds added Tim Beckham at the trade deadline and he instantly became the leadoff man and shortstop they so desperately needed with J.J. Hardy on the shelf. Despite their challenges, the Orioles still posted winning months in April and August. It was the months that didn’t start with A, that proved to be problematic.
Overall, this September hasn’t necessarily been Major League Baseball’s most exciting race. Heading into the month, it looked as though we could have a repeat of the 2011 finish, but that has not been the case. While the AL wild card appeared to be wide open a few weeks ago, the Yankees and Twins seem to have separated themselves, with the Angels and Rangers still within a couple of games. The playoff picture is looking pretty clear with a week remaining in the season.
There are many lessons that the Orioles can learn from this year’s playoff teams. While all teams are constructed differently and each club has its own path to October, there are a few keys components that I believe the Birds should note while they look to add talent this offseason and prepare for 2018. Let’s start in the AL with the Cleveland Indians.
Terry Francona’s club just won 27 of 28 games, the most in a 28-game span since 1884. I predict that they will end up with more wins than any club this season, despite the Dodgers’ incredible start. What can the O’s take away from the Tribe? Their success has been all about the importance of top-tier starting pitching. Cleveland leads the AL in starters’ ERA (3.64), FIP (3.46) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.02). The Orioles are on the other end of that list in all three categories. Led by a true ace and my vote for the AL Cy Young award, Corey Kluber, the Indians have dominated opponents this month by holding them to a .223 batting average. Over the years, the Orioles have found success despite average or below-average starting pitching. Cleveland just proved how valuable a strong staff can be.
How about the AL West-winning Houston Astros? Despite their 93 wins, the Indians rank in the lower half of the league in one major category: payroll. On opening day, Houston ranked 18th with a payroll of $124,343,900. They managed to achieve their success through strong drafts and player development. Jose Altuve, my AL MVP who is sporting an major league-leading 7.1 fWAR, was signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela. In recent seasons, the Orioles have become known for trading international bonus slots and have been critiqued for ignoring talent abroad. Altuve and the Astros have shown that a team can build a contender with a low payroll through effective drafts and smart acquisitions overseas. They also showed how a team can leverage their farm system for valuable trade deadline assets, like Justin Verlander, to make an even stronger playoff push.
Let’s head down Route 295 to Washington D.C., and discuss the Nationals. Washington has built a steady contender that has been very comparable to the Orioles’ success. This season, the Nationals separated themselves a bit. You have to give general managerMike Rizzo and the Nats credit for building a strong core through the draft with Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. They have also complemented their core with free agents like Max Scherzer and Daniel Murphy that have taken their club to the next level. Baltimore has shown a willingness to spend on extensions for their own players, but we haven’t seen a large free agent acquisition for a player on the outside.
Every team has its own journey to the playoffs, and once October begins, the baseball gods defy logic and reason. All you can ask for as a fan, a player, manager or GM is a chance at the postseason. Our Birds have been fortunate in recent seasons to get a few of those chances. Hopefully, they will take the steps this winter to get another crack at it in 2018.
Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.