When the second half of the 2008 baseball season starts tomorrow, the Orioles will be where most baseball pundits expected them to be - in last place in the American League East. However, for much of the first 3 1/2 months, they didn't play down to their low expectations. The Orioles played winning baseball until closing the first half with seven losses in their last eight games, dropping them to 45-48, 10 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. Will the slide continue, resulting in another difficult late season in Baltimore? That's just one question the Orioles will answer over the next 2 1/2 months.
* Another late-season fade?
The signs are all there. The starting pitchers, specifically rookies Garrett Olson and Radhames Liz, are struggling to get deep into games and give their team a chance to win. The bullpen, which had been so reliable, has started to show signs of strain under a heavy workload. Injuries are mounting, exposing the Orioles' lack of organizational depth. The team is losing one-run games instead of winning them. And to make matters worse, the Orioles will play 46 of their final 67 games against teams with .500 records or better.
Last season, the Orioles went a combined 19-38 in August and September. However, manager Dave Trembley and the players have said all along that this is a different - and better - team.
"I don't know that you're ever assured of not having a bad second half," second baseman Brian Roberts said.
"I don't care who you are. I think we have established major league players pretty much everywhere now. I think our starting pitching is going to be the key. As long as they stay hungry and they continue to get better, I think we can keep this going in the right direction."
* Who stays and who goes?
The Orioles' recent slide makes it even more likely that president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail will continue his rebuilding project by jettisoning several of his veterans before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.
MacPhail certainly has some intriguing trade chips. Roberts and designated hitter Aubrey Huff would be two of the best offensive players on the market if MacPhail made them available. Daniel Cabrera could be attractive with so little starting pitching available. All-Star closer George Sherrill, Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker are proven relief options, and Kevin Millar, Jay Payton and Luke Scott could be complementary pieces for a playoff team.
MacPhail, not one to make any grand pronouncements, won't firmly label the Orioles as sellers, but it is clear he isn't afraid to sacrifice some pieces that are helping the club win now for ones that will help them win in the future.
"We will continue to do what we've done in the past - evaluate things on a case-by-case basis," MacPhail said.
"If we think it will make sense, we will go forward and make a deal."
* Where are reinforcements?
MacPhail's trades of Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada improved the organization's depth, but the Orioles still have a glaring void there. That has been evident with the team's struggles replacing the injured Matt Albers and Adam Loewen and the ineffective Steve Trachsel.
"Some of the issues that we've had recently are a result of us not having the depth that you need to have," MacPhail said. "We've had some issues as it relates to pitching trying to compensate for guys who are either hurt or haven't performed the way that we had hoped."
The Orioles had hoped to bring up pitching prospects Olson and Liz later in the season, but they were needed much earlier. With both getting knocked around at the major league level and Hayden Penn displaying maddening inconsistency in the minors, the Orioles have virtually no options. It happened last year, too, forcing the Orioles to send out retreads such as Victor Santos and Victor Zambrano just to play out the schedule.
* How will Jones finish?
The Orioles have been rewarded for their decision to install Adam Jones as their everyday center fielder and deal with the ups and downs of his maturation process.
After getting off to a rough start, Jones, who turns 23 on Aug. 1, has made great strides and appears poised for a strong finish. He hit .323 in June with two homers and 12 RBIs, and he is batting .341 with one homer and 12 RBIs in 12 games in July, raising his average to .281. He has also played an outstanding center field after struggling there at times during spring training.
"I feel like this has become my home," Jones said. "I've gotten more comfortable where I just go out and play instead of worrying about whether I'm fitting in or whether I can do more. It's been satisfying. I've put a lot of hard work into it, and it's nice to see things start working out."
* Contract talks
MacPhail has repeatedly lauded the job Trembley has done, and at this point, the manager's return is little more than a formality. Trembley has an option for the 2009 season, and that will be exercised by the Orioles barring a change of direction.
What becomes of the Orioles' front office is not as clear. The contracts of executive vice president Mike Flanagan, director of baseball administration Scott Proefrock, scouting director Joe Jordan, minor league director David Stockstill and international scouting director John Stockstill expire in October. MacPhail has some decisions to make on the makeup of his front office, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if he made a few more of his own hires. MacPhail said the issue will be addressed in a "timely manner."
* What's up with Matusz?
By now, the Orioles had hoped to have Brian Matusz, the left-handed pitcher out of the University of San Diego whom they drafted early last month, pitching with one of their affiliates. However, the fourth overall pick remains unsigned. The Orioles have until Aug. 15 to get a deal done or they lose Matusz's draft rights.
"It's progressing," Jordan said. "I talked to Brian a couple of weeks ago. ... I feel very confident that he's going to be in the fold before long."