Most Orioles fans are buckled up and ready for a very difficult, high-loss season in 2020 and possibly for years beyond. And who can blame them? The team is in an active rebuild, and winning games has become a secondary goal.
The current mission is to build the farm system, cut salary, and re-shape the organization as a whole. The current major league club has few players that would even be on rosters in other organizations, and most fans’ hopes are invested in future years as the talent in the minors continues to increase.
In July, Baseball America ranked the Orioles farm system as the 8th most talented in Major League Baseball, just one year after ranking them in the bottom 10. You can read more about the Orioles’ future and prospects here at The Baltimore Battery on our Prospect Profiles page.
What are the chances, however, that this Orioles team can put together a miracle season and allow fans to cheer for a playoff contender into and beyond the All-Star Break? Well the answer to that is likely, fat chance.
There is nothing within the statistics, or advanced analytics, or voodoo magic that suggests that this is possible in 2020 given the current roster. This is not the first season, however, that fans have entered feeling that all is hopeless only to be surprised once the games started being played.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at some other seemingly doomed seasons that actually turned out fairly exciting.
4. 1960 – The 1959 Orioles were a pretty bad team. They won 74 games, finishing six games out of eight teams in the American League, and 20 games out of first place. Having arrived from St. Louis in 1954, the Baltimore version of the team had yet to post a winning season.
In the off-season, the Orioles made
some seemingly minor moves in acquiring Jim Gentile from the Dodgers and bringing up Ron Hansen and Chuck Estrada from the minor leagues.
All three players went on to be all-starts in 1960. Hansen was named Rookie of the Year and Estrada and Gentile tied for second.
Also, a 23-year-old youngster named Brooks Robinson had a breakout season and made the first of 15 consecutive All-Star games.
The 1960 team made a charge for the pennant, ultimately finishing 8 games behind the New York Yankees with 89 wins. The season would spark an unmatched run of success for the franchise that spanned 25 years, producing 23 winning seasons, eight playoff appearances, six World Series appearances, and three World Series trophies.
3. 1992 – The 1991 season was one of the beginning years for baseball’s rapidly exploding players’ salaries. This phenomenon ran into direct contrast with the Orioles’ front office conservative fiscal approach.
The team wanted to field a competitive team, while keeping salaries low. The Orioles did manage to make a blockbuster trade in the off-season, bringing in All-Star first baseman Glen Davis, in what is now considered, quite possibly, the worst trade in Orioles history.
Davis suffered a nerve injury in Spring Training and former first round pick, Ben McDonald, spent much of the season on the disabled list.
The team limped to a 67-95 record, finishing in sixth place, 24 games out of first. Some magic was on the horizon, however.
The 1992 Orioles opened their season in their new digs, Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Crowds flocked to what was being called baseball’s most beautiful stadium.
On the field, Johnny Oates took over as manager for former Oriole great Frank Robinson the prior year, and he was beginning his first full season with the team.
The Orioles signed veteran pitcher Rick Sutcliffe and a young pitcher named Mike Mussina had a breakout year, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting, kicking off his Hall of Fame career.
The team got above average years from a number of otherwise unremarkable names, such as Chris Hoiles, Brady Anderson, Randy Milligan, and Mike Devereaux. The play of these unsung heroes was much needed to make up for the very sub-par year recorded by superstar Cal Ripken Jr., 1991’s American League MVP.
The future Hall of Famer produced only 14 home runs to go with a pedestrian .251 batting average. The 1992 team went on to win 89 games and were in the pennant hunt into September. They ultimately finished in third place, seven games out of first.
2. 1989 – Why not? That’s the question Orioles fans were asking in 1989, when their young team found itself unexpectedly in a pennant race as the seasons turned from summer to fall and the last week of the season approached.
The 1988 team was atrocious, famously setting a record by losing its first 21 games. The 54-107 record that the team finished with was an all-time worst for the club in Baltimore, as the Orioles finished a whopping 34.5 games out of first.
The 1989 Orioles brought back a roster full of players that were mostly the same, expecting similar results. However, manager Frank Robinson was able to get huge improvements from pitchers Jeff Ballard, Gregg Olson, and Bob Milacki.
Catcher Mickey Tettleton seemed like a different player, hammering 26 home runs, and new-comer Mike Devereaux provided a spark with 22 stolen bases.
The team found itself 7.5 games in front of the American League East on July 20, but stumbled to a sub .500 record the rest of the way.
Nevertheless, they entered their final series against the Toronto Blue Jays needing a sweep to keep the magic alive and win the A.L. East. The team lost the first two, however, ultimately finishing in second place, two games out.
Outfielder Phil Bradley said of the 1989 “Why Not” Orioles, “On paper, that was probably the worst team I ever played on. It turned out to be the best team I ever played with.”
1. 2012 – Most fans are old enough to remember the magic ride that was the 2012 season. A season that sparked a six-year run that saw the Orioles’ resurgence into relevance after more than a decade of futility.
The team was projected to finish at the bottom of the A.L. East by anyone with an opinion, justifiable given their 67 wins in 2011 and seemingly minimal improvements in the offseason. The Opening Day roster struck fear into no one, and after a run of 14 consecutive losing seasons, there was little reason for optimism.
A strange thing happened, however. Early season series wins turned into late season series wins. The “luck” of winning one-run games never changed. The fact that they were outscored for most of the season never caught up to them.
They pitched their first baseman, who got a win. Also-rans and has-beens, such as Nate McClouth, Lew Ford, and Joe Saunders were becoming unlikely heroes.
The 2012 Orioles finished with 93 wins, good enough for second place in the A.L. East and a spot in the Wild Card game against the Texas Rangers.
The underdog Orioles sent Saunders to the mound, who came over mid-season and sported a 4.06 ERA on the season. The Rangers threw their new ace, Yu Darvish. The Orioles got to Darvish and the Rangers bullpen for a 5-1 victory. During the ALDS against the Yankees, the Orioles bats went cold, and the team dropped the series three games to two, ending one of the most memorable seasons in recent team history.
There is little to suggest that the 2020 Orioles have what it takes to add to this list of surprise seasons, but it should be noted that each of these teams were given little to no chance to compete.
In baseball, sometimes teams just catch a little magic. Why not, right?