O's unable to build on previous year's success
Roberts can't shake injury bug, while club's young pitching falters
BALTIMORE -- In assessing an organization with a rich history brimming with iconic baseball figures, 2011 won't be a year the Orioles reflect on fondly. A year that opened with the New Year's Eve arrest of Orioles pitcher Alfredo Simon -- who missed all of the following spring and was acquitted of an involuntary manslaughter charge in November -- also saw the passing of former O's pitcher and broadcaster Mike Flanagan, a sudden death that rocked the baseball world.
The on-field product didn't serve as much distraction, as Baltimore's season had its fair share of underperformance and inconsistency. A young club that performed admirably in the final two months of 2010 couldn't recapture that magic. Simply put, manager Buck Showalter's squad showed its inexperience and lack of depth in the highly competitive American League East.
The season started with high hopes pinned on a beefed-up batting order and the expected progression of the young arms. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail -- who essentially declared the organization's rebuilding process at its end in the spring -- saw every one of the young pitchers either get hurt, underperform or both. That MacPhail elected to not ask for an extension this winter, wasn't a surprise, although the arduous task of finding his replacement -- a job that ultimately went to Dan Duquette -- certainly was.
But, as Showalter liked to say, it would be foolish to assume that everything related to the Orioles' 69-93 season was bad. There was the highly anticipated debut of rookie Zach Britton, the emergence of utility man Robert Andino, Matt Wieters named to the All-Star team and Vladimir Guerrero's single that made him the all-time hit leader among Dominican-born players.
There was also the dramatic finish to the season, in which the Orioles bested the Red Sox in a home game that essentially cost a free-falling Boston team -- who watched the Rays mount a stunning comeback -- a chance at the American League Wild Card. A moral victory? Perhaps, but it was also a much-needed feel-good vibe to cap another disappointing season in Baltimore.
As the Orioles officially close the book on 2011, here are five of the biggest storylines from the past 12 months:
5. Brian Roberts' health
It seems you can't have a conversation about the Orioles' turning things around without mentioning the question marks surrounding Roberts. And with good reason; the veteran second baseman is one of the game's best leadoff hitters and is a sparkplug in setting up the offense, but he hasn't been able to stay on the field.
Plagued by a concussion suffered in May, Roberts -- who never returned -- has had a litany of injuries the past two seasons (neck, back) and has put the O's in a precarious situation. No one knows for sure, not even Roberts, if he will be ready to play come Spring Training, and without any top middle infield prospects the Orioles relied heavily on Andino at second base in 2011. And while the versatile Andino posted career numbers, he would be better served as a utility player to allow Showalter more flexibility and bench options.
With two years left on a four-year contract, Roberts remains cautiously optimistic he will be able to contribute in 2012. The Orioles have enough holes to fill and can't make getting a top-tier second baseman a priority if Roberts isn't ready. The best they can do is cross their fingers and hope for better luck than '11.
4. Growing pains
The O's young "cavalry," whom they were banking on in their resurgence, all struggled mightily. Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen were shuttled back and forth from Triple-A, Brian Matusz suffered a strained left intercostals muscle and never could regain form and Jake Arrieta had season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur in his pitching elbow. Britton wasn't immune, suffering an up-and-down rookie season that wasn't completely unexpected, but only added to the club's pitching woes. Only Jeremy Guthrie -- who suffered through a 17-loss season -- could be relied on to give the Orioles a consistent six or seven innings.
The abrupt departure of pitching coach Mark Connor in June didn't help things, and the O's ended 2011 last in the Majors in starters' ERA (5.39), innings (881), quality starts (60), strikeout-walk ratio (1.77) and starters' pitches per inning (16.9). They were also last in the AL in home runs allowed by starters (134).
3. Orioles record 14th straight losing season
With the second-longest active streak in the Majors (behind the Pirates), the Orioles are still looking to reach that elusive .500 mark. The toughest part of the season came in July, when they lost nine straight en route to a 7-20 record.
The pitching struggles were a big part of the problem as Baltimore posted a combined team ERA of 4.92, the worst mark in the AL. The bullpen endured a heavy workload and the midseason trade of late-inning reliever Koji Uehara -- followed by August's shipping of Michael Gonzalez to Texas -- left the team's relief corps in dire straits. Closer Kevin Gregg struggled mightily over certain stretches, and while the new-look lineup turned in middle-of-the-pack offensive numbers, there were stretches where the Orioles were unable to produce with runners in scoring position.
All in all, the club scored 708 runs, but allowed 860 runs en route to a fifth-place finish and another sub-.500 season.
2. Saying goodbye to Flanny
While the Orioles played a Wednesday night game in August in Minnesota, a disturbing story was coming out in Baltimore. Flanagan, whose career with the Orioles included a Cy Young Award and World Series championship, and stints as a coach, executive and broadcaster, was found dead at his Maryland home, in what was later ruled a suicide.
The team learned of the news in the visiting dugout that night, a story so gut-wrenching that Showalter was quoted as saying, "We were hoping and praying that it was erroneous."
The passing of Flanagan, and the circumstances around his death, was the gravest story to come out of the organization in 2011, and the team honored his life with a video montage, on-field celebration and memorial patches on its uniform sleeves.
1. MacPhail leaves, Duquette era begins
A well-respected baseball executive, MacPhail made some strides in three seasons in Baltimore, but ultimately it wasn't enough. His mantra of "grow the arms, buy the bats" appeared to be headed in the right direction, and -- while it still could get back on track -- 2011 was an unexpected disappointment for the Orioles' young pitchers. Lauded for his trades, MacPhail did bolster some organizational holes -- most notably in trading for and extending shortstop J.J. Hardy -- and his involvement in the organization's new spring operations shouldn't be overlooked.
Still, Duquette inherited a thinned-out farm system and an organization that hasn't yet established itself internationally. Named the executive vice president of baseball operations in November, Duquette will also have to make upgrades to the Major League team and figure out a way to supplement the lack of top prospects in the Minor Leagues. Duquette said at the Winter Meetings that he believes the 2012 team can be .500 or better and whether he succeeds in that -- or more importantly sets up the organization for long-term success -- will be the team's biggest storyline for the foreseeable future.
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.