Four questions left for Orioles to answer before Monday's 4 p.m. trade deadline

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

By 4 p.m. Monday, all the questions that have loomed over the most blasé of recent Orioles seasons will hopefully be answered.

The nonwaiver trade deadline will come and go, the Orioles will go on taking batting practice and stretching, and they'll face one of the league's hottest teams — the Kansas City Royals — to continue to maintain relevance in a crowded American League.

But what they'll look like when they get there is hardly simple.

Here are the four major questions the Orioles will have answered by 4 p.m., all the culmination of weeks of trade speculation and up-and-down baseball that leaves them as the game's most uncertain team at the deadline.

Is the market where they want it for their relievers?

Sunday's appearance for Orioles closer Zach Britton answered the last question on his return — whether he can pitch back-to-back days — and buying teams will have all the information they're going to get on the condition of the league's top closer from a season ago and how he can impact their club.

When rumblings of trading Britton or even Brad Brach began, the precedent of the returns New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman got for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller in 2016 were almost an aspirational standard. Any return seemed to have to be at that level.

But as the deadline neared, it has proved to almost be detrimental. With the Chicago Cubs reportedly dealing for Detroit Tigers left-hander Justin Wilson, their business is presumably finished in terms of adding relievers. That only leaves a handful of suitors for Britton. The most widely speculated of which, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, have plenty of prospects to give.

The question is motivation. The Dodgers are pretty comfortable atop the National League and probably have the biggest need. The Astros are clutching their top prospects tightly and would view Britton as an expensive luxury, given he could make over $15 million next season. The Nationals and Orioles have never made a trade and are still in a legal battle worth millions of dollars a year.

If that doesn't create a market where the Orioles get a blue-chip prospect and a few other promising young players, they might be keeping hold of their prized relief assets.

Did Mark Trumbo's Sunday injury change the equation on trading a bat?

Others mooted to be moved were the natural candidates in the last year of their contracts, most notably outfielder Seth Smith and catcher Welington Castillo. Outfielder Hyun Soo Kim was already victim to this, moving to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.

But then outfielder-designated hitter Mark Trumbo tweaked his back while stretching before the game Sunday, manager Buck Showalter said. After the game, he brought up the possibility that he hopes it's not an oblique strain, which put that notion into the universe.

If Trumbo is out for any significant period of time, how expendable are either of them? Smith has bounced back from a brutal June to bring his batting line up to .264/.344/.460. His weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which calculates how many runs above or below the league average of 100 a batter produces, is 112. Castillo homered for the 10th time Sunday and is up to a .280/.318/.448 line.

Castillo's $7 million player option creates an uneasy situation for the team come October, but both players might now be required for a stretch run. With Trumbo out, Smith could see more time in the outfield, and Castillo could serve as designated hitter more often on days when Caleb Joseph does the catching. Depriving the Orioles lineup of either in a situation without Trumbo would undo a lot of the progress their bats have made of late.

Could they add another starter?

Hellickson's addition was the type of move a team that's looking to add, not subtract, would make. And it was one that was necessary for a team that all too often has seen games out of reach in the early innings because of deficient starting pitching.

Whom Hellickson replaces in the starting rotation isn't clear yet, but if one person is candidate to cede a spot because of performance, what of the other strugglers? Could Hellickson not be the only addition to the rotation?

If the Orioles pry away another starter to bolster their rotation, it would signal 2017 is in play in the front office's mind. If they don't, Hellickson's deal will stand alone as an odd addition. And if they subtract other assets, it might not be the worst idea to use some of the payroll relief to eat some owed money to one of their struggling starters and cycle in some new arms to prepare them for 2017.

However it happens, the rotation will look different come August.

What's the endgame for 2017?

This, of course, is the answer that all the rest of the answers will beget. By Monday afternoon, the Orioles players will know if management believes a Kevin Gausman resurgence, a new starting pitcher, an intact bullpen and a steadier, more productive offense can be a playoff team in 2017.

That's obviously the players' preference. But there's also plenty of reasons for fans and analysts to say it’s time to address the franchise’s future after seeing a farm system whose legitimate improvement doesn't mask its real limitations, a team that doesn't spend money on foreign amateur talent and an organization that simply doesn't have the starting pitching in the present rotation or the high minors to contend soon.

Not much in the Orioles' Duquette-Showalter era has been done that doesn't fit under the "win now" mantra, and the second wild-card spot has made everyone a believer, even a team four games under .500. By Monday afternoon, how strongly the Orioles believe — and what exactly they believe in — will be clearer.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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