To fix biggest weakness, Orioles might have to deal from greatest strength — their bullpen

If there was one thing to take away from Dan Duquette’s comments during last week’s State of the Orioles session with season-ticket holders, it was that the team’s executive vice president is focused on improving the team for both now and the future as the nonwaiver trade deadline approaches.

Since Duquette became the Orioles’ baseball operations chief before the 2012 season, he has built the club with a focus on being competitive every season. The Orioles have done just that, and because of that, when the deadline approaches, he has shown a penchant for making deals that supplement the team for making a run that season. Duquette said he believes he owes that effort to the fans and ownership.

“We like our ballclub,” Duquette told fans before Saturday’s game. “We like our players. We like our core players and we’d like to be able to contend, so anything that we do will be with that in mind to have a contending team. The way I look at it, you’re either trying to improve your club for today or you’re trying to improve your club for the future for tomorrow. And sometimes you have opportunities to help your club today and then other times you can try to help your club for the future. So whatever we do, we’re going to try to help the club.”

The Orioles (48-53) are on the fringes of the playoff race as they enter their final series before the deadline Friday at the Texas Rangers. With Thursday off, they went into that night’s games 5½ games out of the American League’s second wild-card spot with five teams between them and that position. In the AL East, they were seven games out of first, trailing the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays — all of whom have already made moves to get better.

Regardless of where the Orioles sit at the 11th hour leading up to Monday’s 4 p.m. deadline, they will face the franchise-altering decision of whether to deal from an area of strength (the bullpen) to improve the team’s most obvious weakness this season — the team’s much-beleaguered rotation — for this year and beyond.

The biggest reason the Orioles go into this weekend’s three-game series in Texas five games under .500 is because the rotation’s 5.90 ERA is the worst in the AL and second worst in baseball. The Cincinnati Reds entered Thursday with a 6.12 starters’ ERA. Since May 9, when the Orioles were 22-10 for the best record in baseball, they are 26-43, and their 6.82 rotation ERA over that stretch is the worst in the game.

Taking out of the equation whether the Orioles’ current group of starters can reverse that performance down the stretch, the club is guaranteed that only two of its starters — team-controlled right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman — return to next year’s rotation. Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jiménez are free agents after this season and the Orioles hold a $12 million club option on Wade Miley for next year.

So the Orioles have three spots to fill in next year’s rotation. Despite Duquette’s offseason focus on assembling a stockpile of young optionable arms to move between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk, none have made enough strides to be considered front-runners to assume a starting job next year.

The upcoming offseason offers a mediocre class of free-agent starting pitchers. Several of the best pending free agents — such as former Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta, Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish and Tillman — are having off years. Subpar years by the New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka and San Francisco GiantsJohnny Cueto might lead them to not exercise their opt-out clauses.

Even with all of that, there’s nothing to indicate the Orioles will be willing to delve into the free-agent pitching market this offseason, especially after their past two investments — Jiménez in 2014 and right-hander Yovani Gallardo in 2016 — didn’t turn out well.

That could lead the Orioles to seriously consider picking up Miley’s option for next season — despite a negative WAR (minus-0.4), a 5.69 ERA and an AL-high 62 walks — to help fill out their rotation for 2018.

Starting help could be on the way. Hard-throwing left-hander Tanner Scott could get a hard look next year, and many eyes will be on Hunter Harvey in 2018 as he comes back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction. Pitchers Cody Sedlock and Keegan Akin, the Orioles’ top two draft picks in 2016, have promise but none are considered rotation solutions for next season.

So that leaves the Orioles with no other option but to rebuild their starting rotation through trade, with closer Zach Britton and setup man Brad Brach the most likely trade chips to aid that cause without igniting a full organizational rebuild.

When it comes to Britton — who has spent much of the season on the disabled list with a left forearm strain but just set an AL record with his 55th consecutive save — the question has to be asked whether ownership is willing to pay him the $14-15 million he could receive in 2018, his final year of arbitration eligibility.

Third baseman Manny Machado could also make that much in his last season before free agency, and it has long been unclear whether the team’s payroll threshold could include both in 2018 even with the big salaries of Jiménez and Tillman coming off the books.

That might be the biggest reason the Orioles deal Britton, but also because he could be the only trade chip to net what the team truly needs: a starting pitcher who can help in the immediate future and another that can help within the next year.

Still, the deal has to be there, and if the Orioles end up not moving a player like Britton, it might not be because they weren’t willing but because they didn’t receive what the organization deemed to be a strong enough offer. There aren’t indications, according to sources, that Britton is drawing the offers needed to make a deal worth it in the Orioles’ eyes.

Britton is just nine games into his return from the DL, and with the exception of his sole save opportunity Sunday, he hasn’t looked particularly sharp in some of his lower-leverage situations. Since his return, he has allowed multiple runs in three outings and has a 6.00 ERA in nine innings, which aren’t the kind of results enticing teams to offer a king’s ransom — especially given the finicky lifespans of relievers.

Brach could draw a handsome price, especially since he performed admirably in the interim closer role and is controllable through 2018 at a more team-friendly price than others with closing experience. His track record as a late-inning reliever, and one who can provide multiple innings, is strong. But his resume in the ninth isn’t that deep. He has 19 career saves, including 16 this season.

The Orioles certainly wouldn’t deal both because their top two closing relievers would be gone, though it’s becoming clearer that Mychal Givens’ future is likely to be in the ninth at some point.

On the surface, that could indicate the Orioles stand pat, not because they don’t want to make a deal to get better but because it’s not there.

“Everybody’s got pimples,” manager Buck Showalter said last week. “Everybody’s got dents in their armor. There’s not a perfect player or a perfect coach or manager. So be careful about coveting someone else. You might figure out you’ve got just as good if not better in your backyard and you better figure out how to get it back to its track record and potential.”

eencina@baltsun.com

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