BALTIMORE -- With hopes high and an offseason made up of modest improvements, the Orioles still finished 2011 with their 14th consecutive sub-.500 season. It was a disappointing year, particularly given that this was supposed to be the start of a gradual ascent back to prominence in arguably baseball's toughest division, the American League East.
The O's biggest issues were injury and underperformance, as the expected player development of several key young players didn't happen, leaving the organization to scratch its head and wonder if the assembled core can morph into what was envisioned. While some bumps were to be expected in competing in the AL East with a relatively inexperienced and thin pitching corps, Baltimore received far more development opportunities than it expected.
Twelve different pitchers made starts for Baltimore, second most in the Majors, as the rotation struggled almost immediately and underwent a leadership change when pitching coach Mark Connor resigned abruptly in June. After injury-prone Justin Duchscherer didn't break camp, front-line arm Brian Matusz strained his left intercostal muscle before he could make his first start, setting off a chain reaction in an explicably poor season for the 24-year-old Matusz, who missed two months with injury, spent a month in Triple-A and pitched to a 10.68 ERA in 12 Major League starts. (More)
The loss of Matusz made room for top prospect Zach Britton, who had an erratic rookie season -- including a demotion of his own and a trip to the disabled list. But the 23-year-old Britton showed flashes of promise.
The struggles of Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen -- both squandered several chances to establish a spot in the rotation -- forced the Orioles to dip into a thin pool of pitching, using non-roster invitee Chris Jakubauskas, Mitch Atkins -- who made his first career Major League start in a brief stint with Baltimore -- and reliever Alfredo Simon, who missed all of Spring Training while in a Dominican Republic jail on charges from a New Year's Eve shooting. The O's also plucked Jo-Jo Reyes off waivers from Toronto to help alleviate growing concerns over Jake Arrieta's right elbow, and the 25-year-old had season-ending surgery in August to remove a bone spur, depleting the rotation even further.
But the Orioles' injuries weren't limited to the starting staff. Second baseman Brian Roberts, one of the team's most valuable players, has morphed into one of its most injury-prone over the past two years, suffering concussion-like symptoms on a head-first slide in mid-May. Roberts never returned, leaving a gaping hole at the top of the lineup. Luke Scott -- playing with a torn right labrum in his shoulder suffered this spring -- had his power numbers and overall effectiveness nosedive to a point where he finally opted to undergo season-ending surgery. (More)
Combine that with the lack of power from newly acquired veterans Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, and the lineup -- which had such high hopes coming in -- struggled mightily the first few months of the season.
There were some signs of building blocks in place for the future, most notably the emergence of catcher Matt Wieters, who was selected to his first career All-Star Game, and the impressive season from shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was signed to a three-year extension. (More)
Center fielder Adam Jones has emerged as one of baseball's budding superstars, posting a career year offensively and putting himself in the debate for a second AL Gold Glove Award, and both Arrieta and Britton figure to be a part of next year's rotation.
But the good couldn't outweigh the bad, as the O's rash of injuries, combined with trades of Lee and late-inning relievers Koji Uehara and Michael Gonzalez, ensured the young squad got even younger and more inexperienced as the season progressed. Without Uehara and Gonzalez, the 'pen became a patchwork effort, with right-hander Jim Johnson shouldering the bulk of closing duties in the wake of incumbent Kevin Gregg's struggles to lock down the ninth inning. Where the team will turn in the ninth -- with the potential of stretching out Johnson to start next season -- is a big question moving forward.
There are plenty of other questions as well, as the Orioles face some big decisions on and off the field. That begins in the front office, with the expected departure of president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail leaving the organization at a crossroads and giving manager Buck Showalter, who was hired last August, a say in who that successor will be. How much of a say Showalter, who is rumored to have the ear of owner Peter Angelos, gets will largely dictate how quickly and efficiently the Orioles will move forward.
What follows is a quick look back at a 2011 season in which injury and underperformance thwarted any hopes of turning around the organization's recent streak of futility:
Record: 69-93, fifth in AL East
Defining moment: What better way to define a season than a pair of Trade Deadline deals and a disastrous outing from what had been the Orioles' prized young rookie? With baseball's rumor mill on overdrive on July 30 -- a day shy of the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- Baltimore first sent Uehara to Texas in exchange for two 25-year-olds: pitcher Tommy Hunter and Davis. (More)
The move was done, in theory, because Hunter and Davis were young, cheap and under team control, with Hunter adding a badly needed starter to the staff and Davis a potential to fill the organization's goal of adding power-hitting corner infielders. While Uehara was dealt in between games of a doubleheader in New York, Lee was shipped to the Pirates -- to clear a spot for Davis to play -- and Britton was turning in his worst start of the season, an on-field debacle where he couldn't get out of the first inning. The message of the day was clear as the Yankees smashed their way to a 17-3 win: The O's are still a team in transition.
What went right: The offseason trade for Hardy was a steal, with the shortstop reaching a career high in home runs (30) and locking down the position for years to come. ... Johnson continued to establish himself as one of the best setup men in baseball, and the Orioles stood firm on not trading the reliever, who could be in their rotation next year. ... Mark Reynolds became the first Oriole since 1999 to hit 35 or more homers in a season. ... Robert Andino established himself as a legitimate Major League player, filling in admirably in Roberts' absence. (More) ... The Orioles invested heavily in the Draft, signing 22 of their selections, including each of their top 11 picks. They hope those prospects one day emerge in the "what went right" category.
What went wrong: The offense, due in no small part to the injuries it endured, simply did not live up to preseason expectations. Losing Roberts was a big blow, as was Scott, who could be a potential non-tender candidate this winter. (More) ... Roberts' long-term future outlook is uncertain, leaving the organization with a huge hole at second base. ... Matusz isn't the only young arm regressed, but he was expected to be the team's No. 2 starter, and it's no sure thing he will revert back to form. ... Reynolds' defense and strikeouts. The infielder was moved from third base to first base, but his errors were still a major issue for a staff tasked with getting extra outs. After striking out 221 times last season, the slugger notched 196 whiffs. ... Gregg's high walk totals and his removal from the closer role at the end of the season leave the Orioles looking for a closer for the third consecutive winter.
Biggest surprise: Hardy. The Orioles knew they were filling their shortstop void with a more offensive-minded player, but they couldn't have imagined this. For a pair of relievers, Baltimore got back a powerful shortstop who consistently bolstered the lineup and became a rock in the infield. Hardy has been hampered by injuries throughout his career, but if he can stay healthy, his club-friendly extension could be one of MacPhail's best moves.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.