Update: Since this article went to press, the Orioles agreed to terms with shortstop J.J. Hardy on a three-year contract.
An Orioles season of some promise has taken a depressing turn that makes the prospects for breaking a 13-year run of losing seasons look pretty bleak. The uplifting finish to the 2010 season has faded into a seeming aberration, as the team, having hung around .500 into early June, collapsed into a pre-All-Star break free fall during which it managed to win a feeble six of 27 games. The starting rotation has fallen into utter disarray, middle relief has been non-existent, and the supposedly improved offense has, for the most part, fizzled rather than sizzled.
A good portion of these dismal results can be explained by the Tale of the Two Brians. Brian Matusz, the centerpiece of the team's pitching renaissance, suffered a spring training injury that delayed his season, and when he returned he was a mere shadow of the pitcher who so thoroughly dominated opponents down the stretch last year; he is back in the minors, trying to sort out a mysterious drop in velocity. Brian Roberts, the doubles machine, base-stealing lead-off catalyst, and steady glove at second base, has spent most of the season trying to recover from a repeat bout of concussion symptoms. The impact of those two enormous losses cannot be overstated.
Meanwhile, pitchers who were given every opportunity to step up and claim spot in the rotation have not, and the veteran hitters signed for one year to beef up the middle of the lineup have failed to have any meaningful impact. The continued growth of centerfielder Adam Jones, the emergence of catcher Matt Wieters as an All-Star, and an injection of offense from the new left side of the infield have not been enough to overcome the other failings. All of this has sapped the fans' enthusiasm and heightened their long simmering exasperation with losing.
But there is almost a half season to go, and since there is no crying in baseball, here is one fan's prescription for six steps that need to be taken in the coming months:
•Extend J.J. Hardy. Few offseason moves turn out as well as the Orioles' acquisition last winter of the shortstop, who has, offensively and defensively, solidified a key position that has long been a team weakness, and, with newly acquired third basemen, Mark Reynolds, has drastically improved the productivity of the left side of the infield. In fact, Mr. Hardy has been about as good as any shortstop in baseball this year. As he is a free agent at the end of the season, the team needs to exercise its window of exclusive negotiating rights to maintain what has been one its most significant improvements. Trading Mr. Hardy before the deadline might bring a couple of prospects, but that is insufficient compensation for the tangible difference that he has made.
•Find out about Brian Roberts. The team needs to know by season's end if he can be counted on in 2012. Mr. Roberts' absence creates two enormous holes — lead-off batter and second baseman — that will need to be seriously addressed if there is any doubt about his ability to come back from his injury to be a semblance of the player we have come to know. Internal options — Robert Andino, Blake Davis and Ryan Adams — do not appear close to filling Mr. Roberts' speedy shoes. This situation has fans pondering whether free agent shortstop Jose Reyes would be willing to switch to second base.
•Five starters from within or without. The team needs to put together a dependable starting rotation that begins to go deep into games. It needs to use the remainder of the season to determine whether those five starters are in the organization now. If not, the philosophy of "growing arms and buying bats" needs to be modified for the sake of stabilizing the rotation. The club could make an important statement by becoming legitimate players in bidding for the rights to sign Japanese megastar Yu Darvish this winter. Among free agents, someone along the lines of the Texas Rangers' C.J. Wilson is worthy of serious consideration.
•Who's on first? Derrick Lee is not producing and is not part of the team's future plans, and the professionalism and outstanding defense he brings may be less important than using the second half of the season to determine whether the team has an internal option at first base. Brandon Snyder could be given an extended audition. Or perhaps Josh Bell could be given a chance, either at first or at third, with Mark Reynolds moving to first. In all likelihood, however, the team will have no choice but to vigorously pursue free agent slugger Prince Fielder. The cost will be huge, and the length of the contract may be difficult to swallow, but Mr. Fielder brings the truly feared hitter the team has long been lacking. And his signing would constitute an affirmative statement, to both the opposition and the fans, that the team is serious about contending.
•Who's in left? The signing of Vladimir Guerrero as the designated hitter pushed Luke Scott to left field, made Felix Pie the fourth outfielder, and sent Nolan Reimold and his remaining option to Norfolk. Mr. Scott was the team's most productive hitter as the DH in 2010, but a shoulder injury, which he aggravated playing the outfield, has made this year a season to forget, spoiling both his production and trade value. It is time to let Mr. Scott rehabilitate so that he can resume serving as the DH next year, and to find out if Pie or Reimold, who was once so highly prized that he had his own bobblehead night, could be the answer in left. If neither is the left fielder of the future, the team needs to find a quality player outside of the organization. If the Dodgers' financial problems force a fire sale, a player like Andre Ethier would look awfully good in the Orioles outfield.
•Get some relief. Relief pitchers tend to be the easiest commodity to find, but it is a black mark on the talent evaluation abilities of the organization that it brought in three veteran pitchers to augment the bullpen, and all three — Josh Rupe, Jeremy Accardo and Clay Rapada — flamed out and ended up in the minor leagues. They have to be able to do better than 0 for 3. In the vast list of available relief pitchers, can we please find somebody capable of throwing strikes and getting outs?
Well there you have it. And it's just seven months until spring training.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is email@example.com.