Staring at a seven-and-a-half game deficit in the AL East and carrying a record four games below .500, the Baltimore Orioles re-emerge from the All-Star break with one foot in the Wild Card race and the other in irrelevancy.
As recently as July 1, Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said the team would be buyers ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. This stance, while laughable to some, is defensible in some respects. As has been spelled out many times before, the Orioles stand to lose third baseman Manny Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, and closer Zach Britton after the 2018 season, and few are optimistic they'll be able to bring back all three, if any. There is a finite amount of time for this group, which has made three playoff appearances in the last five years, to make a World Series, and that window is closing fast. Though it may seem like it now, it wasn't unreasonable to think they'd get there. Let's remember the 2017 Orioles started the season with a brilliant 22-10 record through May 9—we've seen their potential.
But the rest of May and all of June have been a full-scale implosion. Dylan Bundy has the best earned run average on the staff at 4.33, and four of the five starters have a walks and hits per innings pitched above 1.50 on the season. Even Bundy, the lone stand-out for much of the year, has seen his performance tail off in June and July. As a group, the Orioles starting rotation ranks second to last in all of baseball with a 5.75 ERA—they're lucky the Cincinnati Reds and their rotation's dismal 5.91 ERA are around to occupy last place.
As for the bullpen, the backbone for so much of the team's success in recent years, they carry a rather pedestrian 4.11 ERA, just above the league average of 4.14.
It hasn't been much better for the hitters. The home run-happy offense has been pretty ho-hum, ranking in the middle or bottom third of most major categories. Machado, one of the club's pillars, has struggled to hit, and he seems content to swing for the fences during most trips to the plate. Aside from outfielder/first baseman Trey Mancini and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, there have been few bright spots.
Even if the Orioles were somehow able to slip into the one-game Wild Card playoff, which Bundy would start by default, manager Buck Showalter can't exactly be thrilled with how his rotation might stack up for a five-game divisional series. Like so many games of late, the O's could be out of it before the start of the 3rd inning.
Crazier things have happened in October, and the standings say the Orioles have a shot to get there and roll the dice. But the reality is much more grim, and at this point the idea of making trades to even try for a playoff push feels a bit foolish. In spite of his public comments, Duquette has to know this too.
Quick aside: Unlike some, I'm not willing to lay all the blame at Duquette's feet. The roster he put together, while certainly not without its faults, followed the same formula that has proven successful since 2012. But it's hard for it to work when your star third baseman, who a year ago was tabbed by many as one of the game's brightest young players, falls into a deep funk. And you certainly don't figure on starter Kevin Gausman regressing so badly after a decent 2016 season and one of your most reliable pitchers, Chris Tillman, coming back from a shoulder injury with such horrific results. And OK, every team suffers injuries, but having one of the league's most dominant closers on the disabled list for nearly two months sucks.
But this is how the season has played out, and with the first half in the books, the number and depth of the holes in the lineup are eerily reminiscent of the city's own streets.
The picture doesn't get much brighter looking toward the future. The Orioles minor league system is often maligned, sometimes unfairly—national sites overlooked Mancini and there are some guys in the organization, such as outfielders Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins, to name a few, who have put up great numbers and somehow eluded Top 100 Prospect lists—but there is clearly no pitching depth in AA or AAA that can be called upon anytime soon to plug the dam.
This puts the Orioles in a bit of an identity crisis. For years, both Duquette and Showalter have stressed that Baltimore can't spend like the big-market teams, and that a key part of success is developing talent from within. They've succeeded in that for the most part, but the organization has failed to develop starting pitching—saying the jury is still out on Bundy and, to a lesser extent, Gausman would be charitable but not wholly inaccurate. The rest has been spotty.
If we're to believe the team is maxed out at its 10th-ranked 2017 payroll of $163,676,616, meaning they cannot go out and spend on pitching this coming offseason, then it's time to rip it up and start again. Offload some veterans and restock the minor leagues. If keeping Machado for 2019 and beyond is a non-starter, dangle him out there, 2017 warts and all, and see what kind of haul a team will offer.
Nothing would please fans more than the Orioles returning to their April form, but with each head-shaking starting pitching performance and anemic night at the plate, it seems less and less likely. The 2017 season may end up being a lost cause, but with a few moves, the future beyond this year, even if it is Machado-less, could look a lot brighter.