This wasn't supposed to be the year the Orioles returned to the playoffs. It wasn't even sold as a decent facsimile of the seminal "Why Not?" 1989 season.
No, it was marketed as a year of tangible steps forward, when the respected, wily manager would begin shepherding a mix of homegrown talent and veterans with one-year commitments out of the baseball wilderness.
Instead, halfway through this season, it has been more of the same dreaded darkness that has permeated Baltimore baseball for the past 13 years: the majority of the young lambs looking confused and overmatched and many of the veterans clearly meandering down the wrong side of the talent hill.
So what is there to hold your attention as these Orioles seem to be careening toward their 14th straight losing season? Plenty, because these are the Orioles. It has been a long time since they have been good. But they are rarely boring.
Here are five questions to keep in mind as the Orioles enter the second half.
1. Will the rotation get even slightly close to expectations?
For all its philosophical complexities and statistical permutations, baseball, at its root, is pretty simple. Good pitching takes teams very, very far.
And heading into this year, the Orioles' rotation looked promising. Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen all were 25 or younger and had experienced limited success in the majors. Throw in stable innings-eater Jeremy Guthrie and 23-year-old lefty phenom Zach Britton, and it looked like, if everything went right, the group could be a force.
Well, little went right. Tillman and Bergesen struggled and were sent packing to Triple-A Norfolk. Matusz started the year on the disabled list with an intercostal muscle strain and, after a woeful June and an 8.77 ERA, also was demoted. Bergesen has been relegated to the bullpen since his recall.
Britton replaced Matusz on the roster in April and was tremendous out of the gate, winning six of his first 7 decisions, but faltered thereafter and was sent to Double-A Bowie last week. Arrieta has 10 wins, but he also has a 4.90 ERA, and a reoccurrence of elbow inflammation has the Orioles somewhat concerned about his health. Guthrie has been fairly steady with a 4.18 ERA, but a lack of run support and a recent rough skid has pushed him to a major league-worst 12 losses.
The rotation has become a mishmash that has included a pitcher who didn't get an official invitation to spring training (Chris Jakubauskas) and two who didn't throw a pitch for the Orioles in March (Alfredo Simon and Mitch Atkins).
For there to be some optimism surrounding this club, the young starters need to step forward in the second half. Britton likely will be back by the end of July, but there's nothing set on the return of Tillman or Matusz, who is probably the biggest key to the club's future. Matusz was counted on as a fixture in the middle or upper part of the rotation. Diminished fastball velocity and shaken confidence has put that into doubt.
2. What happens with J.J. Hardy?
This is a compelling storyline, because it provides a glimpse as to which direction the Orioles are heading.
Despite losing a month to an oblique strain, Hardy has been perhaps the team's best player. He has played a near-flawless shortstop, provided power at the position the Orioles haven't seen since Miguel Tejada, the 1.0 version, and has fit perfectly into the clubhouse.
He's a free agent at season's end and isn't 29 until August, so extending his contract by several years makes plenty of sense, especially since top prospect Manny Machado, 19, is likely several seasons away from contributing at the major league level.
But there's an important flip side here. Hardy is the club's best trade chip. If they deal him before the July 31 nonwaiver deadline, they would probably get a much younger piece or two for the future. Or they could hold on to him and offer arbitration in the offseason, which would most likely net them two high draft picks if he were to sign elsewhere.
Hardy has an extensive injury history and won't be cheap to lock up — so they'd be making a fairly significant financial commitment to someone who hasn't played more than 140 games since 2008. That is similar to what they have at second base with Brian Roberts, who has played just 98 games since the start of 2010 and still has 2 ½ seasons and roughly $25 million remaining on his contract.
The Orioles have little margin for error, so trading Hardy or holding out for the draft picks would be among the safer options. But it also would signal another mini-rebuilding effort, which would further test the patience of an eroding fan base.
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.
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