Another interesting wrinkle in this decision: President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail's contract expires at season's end. MacPhail, who has had contract extension discussions with Hardy's agent, will be making a call about something he might not be around to see in 2012.

3. Will Brian Roberts return and be Brian Roberts again?

This won't be answered definitively in the next 10 weeks, but the remainder of the season should present at least a clue. By now, it's obvious that the Orioles are a more potent team with a healthy Roberts at the top of the lineup and manning second base.

But it is also becoming more abundantly clear that the 33-year-old is not what he used to be. Most significantly, he no longer can be counted on to play a full season. That is concerning because the Orioles don't appear to have a major league-ready replacement.

Robert Andino, who hasn't done much with extended playing time, seems better suited as a utility infielder. Ryan Adams, 24, might be able to hit in the majors, but his fielding needs to improve dramatically for him to be an everyday player.

Blake Davis, 27, has been solid in limited at-bats but is not considered a building block.

The best-case scenario is Roberts returns from a concussion in the next few weeks and recaptures his previous form while staying healthy for the remainder of the year. But the Orioles can no longer count on that possibility. And they won't be able to trade him next year without his approval — even if they could get a taker on his salary. He has a full no-trade clause in 2012.

4. Can Buck Showalter summon second-half magic again?

One of the most impressive things about Showalter's 34-23 managerial record after taking over the Orioles last August is when it happened. Since the Orioles became perennial losers in 1998, they have fared miserably in August and September.

The reasons are varied, but the club traditionally faces an American League East-heavy schedule while having very few quality reinforcements to recall in September. So they usually get buried.

That didn't happen last year, when Showalter seemingly had a magic wand and waved it over an unsteady rotation and a beleaguered bullpen. It will be a real challenge to duplicate that effort in 2011. He's no longer a novelty, and the uncertainty of what he is about — and the desire to make a great first impression — is over.

Now, he has to get results based almost solely on the talent of the roster he's managing. That might mean shuffling the batting order — it wouldn't be a surprise if Vladimir Guerrero, for instance, is dropped from cleanup starting this week — and knitting together a rotation. Because this roster, even before the July 31 trade deadline hits, isn't as formidable as the Orioles' division rivals.

5. Who else might be dealt away?

There were several candidates heading into this season with a lengthy list of pending free agents: Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Hardy, Koji Uehara andMichael Gonzalez.

But only Hardy has significant value in the trade market. Uehara has had an excellent season and is likely coveted by most teams seeking late-inning relief help, but a right-handed setup man will bring back only so much in return. They'll need to do it soon or Uehara will remain with the team in 2012. He already has made 37 appearances, meaning 18 more this season and his $4 million option for next season vests.

Lee, Guerrero and Gonzalez have all failed to have rebound seasons. So if even if the Orioles could deal one or more, the return would be severely limited. The advantage with those three, however, is that they would almost assuredly pass through waivers, so they could be dealt in August.

Outfielder Luke Scott has also been rumored to be a trade chip, but he is dealing with a bum shoulder and has shown little power, so his value is minimal as well.

One player who would be of use to contenders is Guthrie, who still is under the club's contractual control for another year. The Orioles have been hesitant to deal him in the past, however, because of the instability of the rest of the rotation.

It will be interesting to see what the Orioles do with Guthrie. Because, like Hardy, it would provide a glimpse into the club's offseason direction.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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