A season for the Birds: Inside the Orioles' historically awful year

Chris Davis hasn't just been the worst everyday player in baseball this year. His $161 million contract is a black cloud hanging so darkly and so permanently over Camden Yards you'd swear the stadium was domed. Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

BALTIMORE -- For Caleb Joseph, the lowest point of the Orioles' season -- and there have been oodles of low points -- came in mid-August, after the dust had finally settled.

It came nearly a month after the team traded Manny Machado to the Dodgers in a move that officially signaled the waving of the white flag. It came well after the O's shipped Zach Britton to the Yankees. After they sent Brad Brach, Darren O'Day and Kevin Gausman to the Braves. After they dealt Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers.

Joseph's bottom had nothing to do with how many losses the Orioles had or how many games out of first place they were or how sparse the crowds at Camden Yards were becoming. Instead, his bottom had to do with bottoms -- as in the kind that get wiped and changed after a dirty diaper.

Joseph's 3-year-old son, Walker, is a regular in the Camden Yards child care room. Situated in the bowels of the stadium, right next to the tunnel that leads out to the field, it's a charming and colorful space that, for 81 dates a year, plays host to a bunch of toddlers who have more important things to do than spend three hours watching their fathers work. It features a bouncy seat and shelves filled with kids books and a small mural of a shuttered window opening onto a tropical beach with palm trees. And, of course, a diaper genie.

But ever since mid-August, when the Orioles returned to Baltimore for their first homestand after the trade deadline, the diaper genie doesn't get as much action. Gone are Zander and Zilah Britton. Gone are Claire O'Day and Brilee Brach. Gone is Schoop's daughter, Jae'Lynae.

"My kid was the only one in child care," Joseph says. "He lost his friends."

Included among the missing was Machado's wife, Yainee. Although the Machados don't have any kids of their own yet, Yainee was just as much of a regular in the child care room as any of the rugrats.

"She was like a godmother to Walker," Joseph says. "Then, out of nowhere, she's gone. Walker's asking, 'Where's Yainee? Where's Yainee?'"

IT'S THURSDAY OF the last week in September and the defending champion Astros are in town for a four-game series that will finally, mercifully, put an end to the suffering the Orioles and their fans have endured during this cruelest of seasons. Even though it's raining outside, the kind of weather that cancels batting practice and keeps players confined to the clubhouse, there's a conspicuous dearth of activity in Baltimore's once-bustling locker room.

A rack of paddles sits unused next to the pingpong table where Brach and O'Day used to hold court. A brown leather cover lies draped over the billiard table that's hosted many a match between Mychal Givens and first-base coach Wayne Kirby. The chess set that used to get worn out by Machado and Schoop goes untouched. It's been nearly two months since the last of the trades went down -- the one that sent Gausman and O'Day to Atlanta -- and those left to sift through the wreckage are still feeling the effects.

"It's not a relief. Just because it's over doesn't mean it didn't happen."
Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph

"It was kind of weird to go through that and see a lot of your friends leave," says outfielder Trey Mancini, who despite having barely more than 300 games on his big league résumé is now one of the most tenured Orioles on an absurdly inexperienced roster. "The toughest part was losing teammates that I had come to know really well the last couple years."

"That was a really odd time," Joseph says of the two-week period between the All-Star break and the end of July, when Baltimore's front office went into full fire-sale mode. A veteran catcher who debuted in 2014, he's suddenly the third-longest-tenured member of the O's, right behind Adam Jones and Chris Davis. "Knowing what was probably going to happen, yet hoping it didn't, that some odd miracle could happen and we could all stay together. Watching the trades go through was just demoralizing. In the blink of an eye, they're gone."

From the outside looking in, Joseph's plight might not seem so tragic. After all, baseball is a business, and just like any other business, shift happens: Teams change. People move. Life goes on. It's a small price to pay for getting to play a child's game for a living, and making lots of money to do so. But knowing the gang could get broken up at any time doesn't ease the pain when it finally happens. "You can brace for impact," Joseph says, "but it doesn't make the collision any softer."

To say Joseph and his teammates don't care about the bottom line of their job, about the winning of baseball games (or losing, as the case may be), would be a gross misrepresentation. To say they're counting down the seconds until Oct. 1 would be just plain wrong. "We've had one of the most disastrous seasons of all time," he says, "but the fighter in me would rather keep trying to get to .500. I don't ever want to give up. I don't ever want to tap out." At the same time, he admits he's excited for all the things that the offseason brings: the carving of pumpkins, the chauffeuring of kids, the changing of diapers. But as Norman Rockwell as all those things are, they can't undo what's already done.

"It's not a relief," Joseph says, downplaying the notion that winter can heal the kind of wounds the Birds sustained this year. "Just because it's over doesn't mean it didn't happen."

AS CRAZY AS it seems now, the 2018 Orioles entered the season with designs on being playoff contenders. Perhaps deluded by their uncanny ability to outperform projections for the better part of the decade, they stubbornly held onto Machado and Britton last winter instead of trading them. Just like they did at last year's trade deadline, and just like they did the winter before that. They gave onetime ace Chris Tillman yet another chance, and signed free-agent hurlers Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb -- not A-listers by any means, but the kind of additions that had been known to work for them in the past. This time around, it didn't work. Nothing did.

Right from the outset, the O's fell through the floor. Less than three weeks into season, their deficit in the American League had already cracked double digits. Cobb, the former Rays righty who didn't sign until a week before the season, got torched early, as did every other starter not named Dylan Bundy. The defense and the bullpen -- two overlooked areas in which the Orioles had been sneaky good these past few years, and which had helped fuel their improbable playoff runs -- betrayed them, as did Davis, whose $161 million contract is a black cloud hanging so darkly and so permanently over Camden Yards you'd swear the stadium was domed. Injuries to key players like Britton and Schoop and Mark Trumbo didn't help early on, but even at full strength, the O's were no match for the Red Sox or Yankees. Or any team, really.

Heading into their final series against Houston, the O's were more than 10 games behind the next-worst team, which seems impossible given that said next-worst team (the Royals) had already lost 102 games. After Friday night's defeat, they had more L's than any vintage in franchise history (113) and are flirting with the modern MLB record for most games out of first place (they entered Saturday 60½ back of Boston in the AL East). Their highest-paid player (Davis) has been their worst player, not to mention the worst player in baseball, and their No. 1 starter (Bundy) has surrendered more homers than anyone in the majors. They've used a team-record 55 different players, 15 of whom had never played in the bigs before (another record). They've allowed the most runs in the majors and have scored fewer than any team not owned by Derek Jeter. The worst part is, they weren't even trying to be bad.

Say what you want about tanking, but when a team purposely invites abject failure in the near term for the increased chance of success down the road, it makes the failure part a little bit easier to stomach. Just ask Astros fans, who watched their team lose 100-plus games in three straight seasons earlier this decade but are now reaping the benefits. As fate would have it, that very same Houston team is the one currently in Charm City, charged with putting one final nail in an Orioles coffin already littered with them.

In the meantime, it would behoove Baltimore to take a good look at the Astros.

WHERE THE ORIOLES are today is where Houston was seven years ago, at the bottom of the baseball food chain. Fresh off losing 106 games in 2011, the Astros brought in Jeff Luhnow to be their new general manager. Under Luhnow's direction, they drafted shortstop Carlos Correa with the top overall pick in 2012 and fellow infielder Alex Bregman with the second pick in 2015. They developed outfielder George Springer, whom they'd drafted in 2011, just before Luhnow's arrival. A few years later, Correa, Bregman and Springer are the nucleus of a juggernaut that has a chance to be the first team to repeat as World Series champs since the Yankees in 2000.

Whether or not the Orioles choose to tank, as the Astros did in Luhnow's first couple years, there's a pretty decent chance they'll find themselves with some high draft slots in the near future, starting with a surefire No. 1 pick next year. But cashing in on top draft picks is easier said than done.

"I've got a contract through the end of October."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter

"If you're real right once out of 40 in the draft, you can put something together," says manager Buck Showalter, who helmed the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers prior to arriving in Baltimore, and who knows a thing or two about turning teams around. "But you gotta be real right. You gotta be Machado-right."

Being Machado-right is hard enough as it is. It's even harder for an Orioles franchise that's had less than its fair share of draft success in this millennium and that, as of right now, doesn't seem to know exactly who will be overseeing the war room next June. Although Showalter was among the architects of Baltimore's return to relevance, his contract expires at the end of this season. He's 62 years old and has already spent twice as long with the Orioles as he has any of the other teams he's managed. Not to mention, front offices aren't typically in the business of handing out new deals to skippers whose teams flirt with futility records, regardless of their track record. All of which is to say, it's easy to envision a new manager presiding over the Birds' rebuild. Said Showalter matter-of-factly when asked Thursday about his future: "I've got a contract through the end of October."

GM Dan Duquette is also signed through the end of October, but the odds of him sticking around in Charm City seem greater. After all, he was the one who orchestrated Baltimore's massive sell-off at the trade deadline, a bonanza that netted the club 15 prospects. Common sense would seem to dictate that if ownership was going to get rid of Duquette and replace him with someone else, that change would have happened prior to the trade deadline, so his replacement could be afforded the opportunity to make his own bed.

Alas, when it comes to Baltimore's ownership, common sense hasn't always been the norm. But with patriarch Peter Angelos in failing health and ceding more and more control to sons John and Lou, it seems as if SOP in the Warehouse is changing. Instead of trading away the money allotted for signing foreign prospects, as has been the norm for the O's in the past, they've been hoarding it recently. Of course, international pipelines don't just materialize overnight: It'll take time for the Orioles, who long ignored the foreign market, to staff up on scouts and develop relationships and do all the things that ultimately lead to landing game-changing talent from abroad. Just like it'll take time for them to draft and develop talent domestically. Just like it took the Astros time.

If the Orioles are lucky -- like, really lucky -- they'll follow in Houston's footsteps and go from triple-digit losses to triple-digit wins in four years, a relative heartbeat in baseball terms. Then again, maybe they won't.

"You try to do it as fast as you can," Showalter says when asked if the Astros' model offers a blueprint, if this final series of 2018 provides a glimpse into what the future might hold for the Orioles. "But you gotta do it with your nose down and grind each day, and you might be surprised where you stand when those days are behind you."