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Revisiting the hard-luck Orioles and Manny Machado

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The Orioles are having a weird season for a team running away with their division. They might be the kind of team we use in a decade to feel better about other teams.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Just a little less than two months ago, I wrote about the awful luck of the first-place Orioles. That's a funny string of words to put together, "awful luck" and "first place," but it fit for the Orioles, for whom nothing has quite gone as planned. Ubaldo Jimenez is in the bullpen. Tommy Hunter has been an ex-closer for a while. Chris Davis is the same enigma that he was before 2013. Yet the Orioles are one of the only teams in baseball running away with their division.

Included in that article was this snippet of optimism:

Davis and Machado can start hitting. Hardy can find his power stroke. Any of the pitchers can turn the corner and be a little better, even if just to 2013 standards. More than any of that, though, the Orioles can patch a lot of their problems in the trade market.

Instead, the Orioles lost Manny Machado for the season. That's, like, the exact opposite of all that up there. And yet their AL East lead keeps growing. The Orioles are threatening to become a Moral Of The Story team. That's a phrase I just invented and now have to define, but note that it's not a bad thing. It's one of the best of things.

Before this season, there were two Moral Of The Story teams of recent vintage that I can't get out of my head. The first one is the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who were the worst non-expansion team in 50 years. There have been dark nights when I got maudlin after a few drinks and ended up on the 2003 Tigers page on Baseball Reference, which would make me whisper "I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry" while cradling my tablet like a baby bird that just flew into my patio window. It was the most depressing team in generations. Exactly 130 of their 162 games were started by pitchers who finished the season with an ERA between 5.44 and 7.12.

Three seasons later, the Tigers won the pennant.

The moral of the story is that it can take just three years to move from one of baseball's all-time worst teams to a World Series team.

The 2010 Giants were the next Moral Of The Story team for me and an exceptionally personal one. This was the Giants' starting lineup on Opening Day, 2010:

Aaron Rowand - CF
Edgar Renteria - SS
Pablo Sandoval - 3B
Aubrey Huff - 1B
Mark DeRosa - LF
Bengie Molina - C
John Bowker - RF
Juan Uribe - 2B

Here was their starting lineup in Game 1 of the World Series:

Andres Torres - CF
Freddy Sanchez - 2B
Buster Posey - C
Pat Burrell - LF
Cody Ross - RF
Aubrey Huff - 1B
Juan Uribe - 3B
Edgar Renteria - SS

That's a lineup with three starters left over from Opening Day. Everyone else was replaced with rookies, role players and waiver claims. That's the team that won the first World Series in San Francisco history. The moral of the story is that our offseason pontification and punditing usually doesn't mean a thing because the teams still have six months to tweak and tweak and add and tweak. The Opening Day lineup can occasionally be irrelevant.

Which brings us to the 2014 Orioles. If asked before the season to list the three most important players for the Orioles, I don't think I would have blinked:

  1. Manny Machado
  2. Matt Wieters
  3. Chris Davis

Okay, Adam Jones would have been No. 1, probably, but work with me, here. Those three players up there are essential for the short-term health of the franchise, just as they are essential for the long-term health of the franchise. Machado and Wieters are broken, and Davis is ordinary, at best. Tell people in Vegas that's going to happen last March, and watch casinos explode. There was just no way the Orioles could win without Machado and Wieters, especially if Davis wasn't going to do anything. Especially especially if the best members of the starting rotation were going to top out at "slightly above average" and go no further.

Yet here the Orioles are, nine games up and with something close to a 95 percent chance of making the playoffs. The moral of the story is that sometimes the most important players on the roster aren't as important to the playoff hopes as you think they are. That isn't to say the Orioles wouldn't be better with Wieters and Machado for the rest of this season, and there are still the major implications of what this will do to the Orioles' championship hopes. But it's easy to get caught up on two or three players on any given roster, when it's always, always, always true that it's more important to find out what the other 22 players can do before writing a team off.

There's nothing that's going to make Orioles fans feel better, of course. The O's lost a key contributor at exactly the wrong time -- there's no pending trade deadline to help, and nothing but important games coming up. But when the Orioles pull this off, they'll be a Moral Of The Story team. They will be a testament to the idea that the whole of a roster is often greater than the sum of its parts, a team that could withstand several key contributors getting sniped by injury monkeys or being otherwise disappointing and still blow the division away.

It's of little consolation. But it's the kind of thing that makes fans of all 30 teams feel better about their lot in life in future years. "If the 2003 Tigers could turn into a pennant-winning team within three years, if the 2010 Giants could overhaul their roster on the fly and if the 2014 Orioles could have everything go wrong with almost every of the expected contributors, then maybe there's hope for my team."

That's the moral of the story, even if the Orioles are still desperately writing the story down on whatever Post-It notes they can find.