The Orioles may have already wrapped up their first American League East title in 17 years, but a number of questions are left to be answered as they play out the remainder of the regular season.
Here’s a look at what remains on manager Buck Showalter’s mind for his 92-60 Orioles as they enter the final 10 games before the postseason …
1. Is it more important to go for the No. 1 seed in the American League or to rest everyday players?
Even though a 43-31 road record suggests the Orioles shouldn’t be afraid of playing away games in October, it’s difficult to argue with wanting home-field advantage considering Showalter’s club is a remarkable 30-8 at Camden Yards since June 30 and hasn’t lost consecutive home games since June 28-29. Entering Friday, they trailed the Los Angeles Angels by 2 1/2 games for the best record in the major leagues, a deficit that is far from insurmountable with the Angels playing Seattle and Oakland three times each — all six games are on the road — in their final nine games.
But Showalter also knows players who are fresh — or are at least as fresh as possible in October — are even more important to the Orioles’ chances of playing deep into the postseason. The early indications are that we’ll see position players such as Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Nelson Cruz, and Steve Pearce sit on a rotational basis of one or two per game, but Showalter has also said resting pitchers will be the higher priority.
The club’s top relievers have already been rested periodically over the last couple weeks as we’ve seen the likes of Ryan Webb, Evan Meek, and Brian Matusz pitch in some high-leverage situations while Darren O’Day, Andrew Miller, and Zach Britton have gone unused in certain games when they’d usually be available. Showalter could also elect to give a spot start or two to Ubaldo Jimenez or Joe Saunders to align his rotation and give some extra rest to starters who have historically benefited from extra days like Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez.
Entering Friday, the Orioles owned an eight-game lead over current No. 3 seed Detroit, so there isn’t any real danger of losing their grasp on the second seed if the Angels hold a steady lead into next week.
2. “I Don’t Know’s on third?”
While many have focused on the lost power potential of Chris Davis when news broke of his 25-game suspension last week, his absence at third base — where he was doing a solid job filling in for the injured Manny Machado — created the bigger dilemma as we’ve seen the trio of Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, and veteran Kelly Johnson share time at the hot corner since last week.
Flaherty is the best defensive option, but his .645 on-base plus slugging percentage creates another weak spot in a lineup that’s already carrying the inconsistent rookie second baseman Jonathan Schoop and one of the catching duo of Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley. Paredes and Johnson have provided some heroics with the bat in recent days, but neither provides a great deal of confidence defensively and they don’t have a track record — Johnson’s numbers in recent seasons are far inferior to the hitter he was four or five years ago — suggesting their offense will make a great impact in October, anyway.
It’s unlikely that Showalter will make a definitive choice for October, but his strong affinity for defense might make Flaherty the best bet of the three to receive extensive time — at least against right-handed starters — unless Paredes or Johnson continue to rake over the final 10 games going into the playoffs. Of course, there’s no guarantee that both Paredes and Johnson make the postseason roster.
3. Who will make up the four-man rotation for the playoffs?
Not counting Ubaldo Jimenez who appears all but certain to be left off the postseason roster, the Orioles really can’t go wrong with all five of their starters currently sporting an ERA of 3.62 or lower.
However, it would appear that Kevin Gausman is the starter left out considering he’s the least experienced of the group. Showalter’s decision to leave Chris Tillman out of the rotation in the 2012 postseason is a good indication that he’ll lean on experience, but the Orioles would be foolish not to put Gausman’s power arm in the bullpen to spell any starter showing signs of early trouble.
For the sake of ranking the remaining four from top to bottom, Tillman, Chen, Gonzalez, and Norris would be a fair order based on how they’ve pitched in recent weeks.
4. Which 25 players will make up the Division Series roster?
The Orioles elected to keep 12 pitchers for the Division Series two years ago, which gave them an eight-man bullpen and plenty of flexibility to match up.
There shouldn’t be too much drama in the bullpen as Britton, Miller, O’Day, Gausman, Matusz, Brad Brach, and Tommy Hunter would fill the first seven spots with the final slot potentially going to long man T.J. McFarland or right-hander Ryan Webb. With three of the four rotation members right-handed, McFarland could be Showalter’s preference in the event of an early exit by a starter as he’d be a long reliever throwing from the opposite side to face a lineup designed for the right-handed starter.
Working under the assumption that Jones, Markakis, Cruz, Hardy, Pearce, Schoop, Joseph, Hundley, Flaherty, Delmon Young, and Alejandro De Aza are locks, Paredes, Johnson, and outfielders David Lough and Quintin Berry would be the realistic candidates fighting for two spots. It will be interesting to see if Showalter values having either Lough or Berry as a pinch-running option and late-inning defensive replacement, which would push either Paredes or Johnson off the roster with the other guaranteed to make it as an option at third base.
The suspended Davis isn’t eligible to return until after the first eight games of the postseason, so his status isn’t a factor for the Division Series.
5. Will the Orioles be able to maintain their edge?
With so much discussion about Showalter needing to rest his everyday players, there’s a fine balance between providing a breather and accidentally turning off a competitive switch that isn’t guaranteed to come back on in October.
This could be a real concern for many clubs locking up a playoff spot in mid-September, but the mental toughness shown from the likes of Jones and Markakis all the way down to Paredes and De Aza makes you think the Orioles are incapable of losing their focus. Of course, the possibility of still being able to catch the Angels for the top seed provides extra incentive for players to remain engaged over the final 10 games.
Considering they’ve overcome season-ending losses to two All-Star players and haven’t even blinked since Davis’ suspension began last week, it would be difficult to fathom the Orioles finally having a mental letdown at this late stage. The Orioles may ultimately fall short in the playoffs, but it won’t be due to a lack of focus or going through the motions.