About 2 1/2 weeks ago, Orioles president Andy MacPhail appeared headed for a dilemma that he would have been perfectly happy to confront.
When play started June 29, the Orioles were three games over .500 and seven games back in the American League East. They were winning close games, pulling off multirun comebacks and playing a resilient style that re-energized a fan base soured by a decade of losing.
But that afternoon, closer George Sherrill, one strike away from securing another Orioles victory, threw a hanging slider that Ronnie Belliard drove into the left-field seats. The two-run, 12th-inning shot gave the Washington Nationals a 3-2 victory and started a stretch during which the Orioles lost 10 of 14 games heading into the All-Star break, including seven of their last eight.
The skid, which dropped the Orioles into last place, has quieted any talk about whether MacPhail will attempt to add a couple of proven pieces to bolster the club. With the Orioles three games under .500 and 10 games out in the division and the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline looming, the organization's focus has returned to building for the future, and that won't be compromised by trying to finish with a winning record for the first time since 1997.
"Your ultimate goal has to be to build a team that is capable of getting into the postseason in the AL East," MacPhail said. "You have to make sure one doesn't come at the expense of the other. There is a value to breaking the string of losing seasons as an organization or as a franchise. But breaking that streak can't come at the expense of doing what you need to do to get your franchise to the point where it can reach the postseason."
MacPhail acknowledged that the Orioles have won more games than he expected at this point of the season, and he has been pleased with the energy and effort they've shown while doing it. He said throughout the first half that he had no designs on "pulling the rug out" from his team while it was playing so hard and so well.
However, what happened the final two weeks before the break, a stretch manager Dave Trembley said beforehand would be an indication of where the Orioles are, might have made the decision for MacPhail.
"The amount of [trade] talk is starting to pick up as one would expect a couple of weeks before the deadline," MacPhail said. "If anything comes from it, you never know for certain. Everyone has a good idea who the sellers are, who the buyers are. It's generally pretty well-documented what teams' needs may be."
The offseason trades of star shortstop Miguel Tejada and ace pitcher Erik Bedard proved that the Orioles were serious about the rebuilding process. As it turns out, both moves also paid immediate dividends. The Orioles' roster still includes several other trade chips, many of whom have posted strong first halves. Second baseman Brian Roberts, who was nearly traded before the season, leads the league in triples, is second in doubles and is tied for third in steals, further establishing him as one of the top leadoff men in the game.
Sherrill, obtained from the Seattle Mariners in the Bedard deal, made the All-Star Game and is tied for second in the AL with 28 saves, and he would be one of the top relievers on the trade market. Designated hitter Aubrey Huff is among the top 10 in the league in homers, RBIs, doubles and slugging percentage and could fill a contender's need for a powerful left-handed bat.
"Our players have played well enough where there should be interest, and I'm confident there will be," MacPhail said. "All you have to do is look at the league-leader categories, and you're going to see a lot of Orioles."
The Orioles have other trade chips, such as first baseman Kevin Millar, outfielder Jay Payton, and relievers Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker. All could be moved in smaller-scale deals. However, the price for Roberts and Sherrill, for instance, will be significantly higher, and MacPhail has made it clear in earlier trades that he's not averse to holding out until he gets exactly what he wants.
Before the season, the Orioles were asking for three or four prospects for Roberts, and that isn't expected to change. The Orioles have gotten several inquiries about Roberts, and the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins appear to be the best fits, though it's not yet known whether those teams would match the Orioles' high asking price.
With most contenders needing relief help, Sherrill, who could serve either as closer or a situational left-hander, is also a prized commodity. The Los Angeles Dodgers just lost closer Takashi Saito for six weeks to an elbow injury. But like Roberts, Sherrill is an integral part of the current club. He's also making less than $1 million and is under Orioles control through the 2011 season.
For Sherrill's part, he hopes the deadline passes without any significant changes to the composition of the club.
"I definitely want to be here," Sherrill said. "You have a Roberts, a [Nick] Markakis and [Adam] Jones to build around. There are a lot of pieces here, and being in the middle of it, I want every piece to stay. You need a Huff, a Millar to keep it all together. It's a great group. Andy has a tough job ahead of him. It's his ballclub. He's going to do what he feels is right."
Millar agreed, saying it is important to continue the positive momentum built in the first half.
"This is the first time I've seen the city excited," he said. "We haven't gotten to where we need to be, but we've won more than people expected us to. I think you want to add. You don't want to subtract. But that's not our call. That's Andy MacPhail's call. But I think the direction that they want this team to go is well ahead of schedule."
Perhaps Roberts best summed up MacPhail's challenge when he said, "We're excited about the future, but we also want to be excited about now."
Sun reporter Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.