Dan Duquette does an interview at Camden Yards on Saturday afternoon. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
The Orioles have every right to bask in the glow of a highly competitive and entertaining 2012 season that exceeded all expectation, but it's impossible to look back on their six-game playoff run without wondering what might have been — and what might be — if they had just a little more offensive potential.
The five-game American League Division Series was one of the lowest scoring in the history of that format, so it wasn't like the New York Yankees were tearing the cover off the ball either. Both teams pitched very well, and the case can be made that the Orioles might still be playing if they could have mixed in one more big hit at the right moment. It was that close.
It was so close, in fact, that it might be tempting to think that the return of a healthy Nick Markakis and the continued development of several young hitters will be enough to maintain this year's level of performance and put the Orioles in better position to advance in October.
That might even be logical, but the front office cannot fall into the trap of thinking that it can move forward by standing still.
Owner Peter Angelos made it pretty clear in his brief comments to the media after Game 5 that he expects this group to be back in the postseason next year. He also delivered a very strong endorsement of manager Buck Showalter and baseball operations chief Dan Duquette, which should be a signal to them that they may never be in a better political position to improve the club than they will be this winter.
"You don't want to be delusional about some things,'' Showalter said on Saturday. "You want to make sure you don't drink some Kool-Aid on some things you've got to get better at, even though you're one win away from playing for the American League championship. You're always looking to improve. I know that's Dan's mode. This is a very important time between now and the time the season starts next year, and we'll grind it."
That process can't begin in earnest until November, so Duquette and Showalter have a few weeks to ponder some important preliminary questions.
Do they, for instance, exercise the $11 million option on the contract of first baseman Mark Reynolds after a season in which he did not live up to his offensive credentials but — in an almost ironic twist — proved to be one of the most valuable defensive players on the team?
Do they look at the scant roster of free agents at second base and simply wait and see whether Brian Roberts has anything left next spring, knowing they can always fall back on the Robert Andino/Ryan Flaherty platoon that Showalter settled on late in the season?
Do they pursue a frontline starting pitcher to deepen the rotation or assume that Chris Tillman has arrived for good and Dylan Bundy is ready to pop?
No doubt, all of those possibilities will be hot topics of discussion when Duquette hunkers down with the baseball operations staff to map out the offseason. He said Saturday that the team proved it was capable of competing as presently constituted, but that doesn't mean he won't be in the market to improve their chances of making another playoff run next season.
"I think that we had a good ballclub, and I think we had the people to get the job done,'' Duquette said. "You know, a base hit here or there or an out here or there, we'd be playing for the American League championship.
"I think the experience of playing in the postseason is a good one for everybody to have, but I'm also keen enough to realize that when you get into close competition it helps you identify your strengths and also the areas where you need to improve to win the championship. That's something we can take a look at in the offseason, but the core of our lineup is good and it's young."
The Orioles are in a position to retain just about all of their key players, and they have top pitching prospects Bundy and Kevin Gausman moving quickly through the player development pipeline. The future looks so bright that catcher Matt Wieters said he'd be fine with going into next season with exactly the same team.
"I would, because of the kind of character and kind of guys we have in this clubhouse,'' he said Saturday. "I know everybody's going to go into this offseason with a little bit of a good taste and a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths where everybody's going to work hard to improve so we can come back to spring training and hopefully take a few steps further."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app