BALTIMORE -- The finality of the 2013 season hit the Orioles hard, as baseball's darlings a year ago found themselves outside of playoff contention one season removed from advancing to the American League Division Series in their first postseason appearance in 15 years.
Still, Sunday's victory over Boston closed the book on a solid year in which the Orioles (85-77) posted their second consecutive winning season and drew more than 2.3 million fans for the first time since 2005. But it also left a revived baseball city disappointed and the Orioles already looking forward to better things next spring.
"This isn't a club that went into the season trying to be the Wild Card," manager Buck Showalter said of his team he instructed after the finale to get away from all things baseball for at least a month. "We were trying to win the division. And we competed well with the team that's probably the best in the American League, record-wise [in the Red Sox]."
"I'm sure we're all disappointed in the ending," added executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, "but there's certainly some really good takeaways from the season, and that's what we're getting back from the fans. They're really happy about the season. They're happy that it was a winning season. They're happy that we were in the race. Glad to see the young talent emerging. Chris Davis had a fantastic season. [Adam Jones] had a top season. [Manny Machado] had a good season.
"We have some other good players on the horizon, so we've built up our talent base where we should be competitive again."
The Orioles' core does return, with an infield of Davis, Machado, J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters joined by outfielders Jones and Nick Markakis. The O's committed just 54 errors, setting a new Major League record in a 162-game season and posting a baseball-best .991 fielding percentage.
"From the day that we got here, that's something that we wanted to get better at," Showalter said. "I remember the other day thinking the first night I was sitting in the dugout here, looking around, knowing it was something we needed to get better at. And they were trying to, it's just we didn't have the personnel. It just tells you we've got to really try to get better as a pitching staff if we have that good a defense."
The Orioles' starting rotation remains their biggest hole going into the winter, with inconsistencies again the main issue. The O's need to add a top-of-the-rotation guy to go along with Chris Tillman, who had a career year, a move that should also keep the bullpen from getting overworked.
Duquette has placed emphasis on on-base percentage, and the Orioles struggled -- particularly down the stretch -- with timely hitting. The O's feast-or-famine offense, which led the Majors in home runs hit and allowed, will try to become more balanced and avoid long lulls like the one that sunk their September.
While Showalter and Duquette sit down over the next few days to start to map out an offseason plan, here's an early look at where the O's stand for 2014.
Arbitration-eligible: Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, Nolan Reimold, Davis, Troy Patton, Wieters, Jim Johnson, Dan Johnson, Chris Dickerson, Steve Pearce, Bud Norris.
Free agents: Brian Roberts, Nate McLouth, Jason Hammel, Scott Feldman, Francisco Rodriguez, Michael Morse.
Rotation: Tillman is assured a spot at the top of the rotation, and the Orioles also have Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Norris, who figure to be in next year's plans.
But, once again, the expectation is there will be a multitude of starting options -- at least in number -- this spring and Kevin Gausman will be among the most intriguing names already in the organization. The Orioles, active in trade rumors last winter, will try to add to their pitching staff this offseason, and there's a good chance they try to keep a veteran innings-eater -- such as Feldman -- around in 2014 to help stabilize a young group of starters.
Top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy is rehabbing back from Tommy John surgery, but could be a factor later in the season and the Orioles will have decisions to make on guys like Zach Britton, Matusz and Hunter, who are all out of options. The latter two spent the year in the bullpen, but could again be stretched out as potential rotation candidates this spring, with the plan for Rule 5 Draft pick T.J. McFarland to also be stretched out to start.
Bullpen: The Orioles' bullpen will have a lot of pieces still intact next spring and, provided the starting rotation gives them innings, should be able to continue a stretch of recent success.
Johnson will be back, with Duquette definitively saying over the weekend that club plans to tender a contract to the right-hander, who will get a hefty raise with his second consecutive 50-save season. Johnson struggled at times, blowing nine saves, but he is seen as part of the core and should continue to give the Orioles a chance late in the game. Late-inning arms Darren O'Day and Hunter will be joined by lefties Matusz and Patton, with McFarland another option here as a long man. K-Rod was a late-season addition and is the only free agent of the group, with the veteran not expected to return.
Catcher: Wieters has this spot all locked up. And while there's nothing settled behind him, the O's will take a long look at local product Steve Clevenger and Chris Snyder, who were both with the big league club in September.
First base: Davis is coming off one of the best offensive seasons in baseball history and the infielder played a Gold Glove-caliber defense, which was often overlooked. Davis will be back, and get a hefty raise, for 2014 with no clear-cut backup. Look for the O's to try to sign a few first-base types to Minor League deals this spring, but the expectation is Davis -- who suffered a minor left wrist sprain the final game of the season -- to again be the club's everyday guy.
Second base: One of the biggest question marks going into the season, the Orioles will have Brian Roberts' four-year, $40-million deal off the books. Do they re-sign Roberts to a one-year deal with incentives? Perhaps. It remains to be seen if Ryan Flaherty can be their everyday answer there and prospect Jonathan Schoop still needs time to develop.
The free-agent market for second basemen isn't great, making Roberts' return more plausible, although the O's have shown faith before in handing a young player the reins so it's not out of the question for Flaherty or Schoop. Regardless, the second-base situation is next to the starting rotation at the top of the club's offseason priorities.
Shortstop: Hardy has this position locked up and, like most of the Orioles' infield, there's no competition. Flaherty has served as Hardy's primary backup and likely will again, barring a need for him elsewhere, with the Orioles not expected to pick up the option on Alexi Casilla.
Third base: Much like Hardy, Machado is expected to play close to every game next year. Machado, who suffered a season-ending left knee injury, has a recovery timetable of 6-8 weeks, and the plan is for him to rest and rehab and be 100 percent for Spring Training. Obviously this is a situation the Orioles will monitor carefully, but with no serious ligament damage there's every reason to be optimistic that Machado will be just fine to start next season.
Outfield: Jones and Markakis are both under contract for next season and will man center and right field, respectively. The question here is a familiar one for the Orioles organization, with McLouth's departure leaving a huge hole in left field.
Reimold will be coming off his second consecutive surgery-shortened season and designated hitter Henry Urrutia isn't ready to make the jump to the field. It's plausible the Orioles try to keep McLouth around for 2014, with no obvious candidates in the Minors.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.