The Orioles’ return Monday from the weekend's four-game sweep in Toronto featured enough reminders of all the trappings that come with the worst record in baseball, even before the team faced off with the Boston Red Sox, who entered the night with a major league-high 44 wins.
Whether it's the stir that leaving a sick Manny Machado out of the lineup caused before the reasons became clear, or the open acknowledgement that the returning Zach Britton is going to be showcasing himself for possible trades, the Orioles are at the point where what's happening off the field is taking center stage over what's happening on it.
A week after executive vice president Dan Duquette implied that the team would move veterans as a way to focus more on the future, manager Buck Showalter was left Monday to acknowledge that showcasing for trades and free agency isn't exactly what he wants his players focusing on but that it's not the worst motivator at this point.
"I think they're always engaged in something from a pride standpoint," Showalter said. "It always has an effect on individually, and sometimes, in the industry so to speak. But most guys that get to this level, they're driven by multiple things, but mostly kind of a self-driven. Anything like that outside the realm, I think is only good. But I'd rather be feeding off something else."
Machado is out of the lineup with illness, catching a bug that's going around the team and kept its hottest hitter, third baseman Danny Valencia, out of the lineup Sunday. But in the half-hour or so when the team's prized asset and best overall player this season was not listed in the lineup to face Steven Wright and the Red Sox on Monday, speculation grew that he could have already been moved ahead of his pending free agency as the first piece to fall in the team's rebuild.
"Manny, he would play if I asked him to," Showalter said. "It's something that he needs to back off of. He's been there playing every day."
Even with a recent slump, Machado is batting .312 with a .971 OPS and 18 home runs to lead the Orioles in every major category. His move to shortstop, along with the potential of his free agency payday, has kept him focused in a season in which the same can't be said for his teammates. And even with all that, the Orioles entered Monday at 19-45. Showalter said he didn't need filling out a lineup card without Machado's name in it to realize that that possibility was looming for him and the Orioles. That he pivoted to a possible shortstop replacement, Tim Beckham, said plenty about where the manager's mind is.
"I don't need today to think about that," Showalter said. "We've had a lot of guys who had to move on, or moved on. Those days happen. I know by the way, along that line, I think Tim's going to make the [June 23 eligibility date]. He's going to start playing games very shortly, in the next week.
"Giveth and taketh. I'd be less than frank if I said that I hadn't already thought about that. We should have already thought of it, and we should think about all guys — if somebody's hurt, what's your what-if? There's not everybody on the horizon or maybe in baseball that's a what-if that's available like Manny. I don't need a reminder of watching it tonight."
And after dealing with the what-ifs of a bullpen without All-Star closer Britton for the first two-plus months of the season, Showalter now has to deploy him with the possibility of trades in mind. Britton acknowledged Monday that it will be hard to ignore the fact that he is auditioning until the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, even if that’s not how he’s going to think of it. He’s just excited to be back pitching after six grueling months of rehabilitation.
“Now, every time I pitch well, I want to pitch well and help the team, regardless of our standing or trade discussions,” Britton said.
Showalter addressed the issue more directly, saying that using Britton in a way to showcase him for other clubs is “one and the same” as using him in ways that benefit the Orioles now.
"Zach's got a heck of a track record," Showalter said. "I think anybody that got to that point, I'm not trying to be unrealistic here, but we're going to try to put him in situations and if there are not games to close, then he'll pitch, like we do with all of our guys. ... But I know what teams who would have interest in a guy like Zach, what they're looking for. I think he's got enough.
"In fact, I know there were scouts at every game he threw in rehab the last three or four outings. Multiple scouts, OK? There's no secrets. And believe me, there was enough there. I think they know what they could potentially get if we get to that point. He's arguably as good if not the best guy out there when he's right, and I think he's got a chance to be right."