Usually the prevailing thought at this point is, "Who do the Orioles deal at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline?" But this month, the Orioles appear to be buyers. One, because at 45-40 they are in second place in the AL East and currently a postseason contender. Secondly, the Orioles don't have any coveted veteran trade chips this year to be sellers. Only infielder Mark Reynolds and reliever Kevin Gregg fall into that category, and neither will bring back much -- if anything -- in a trade. So Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette is wheeling his empty cart up and down the starting pitching aisles. Duquette has already made overtures for starting pitching, including the market's most coveted prize, Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke (left). Pretty much every established veteran starter that's potentially available will catch the Orioles' interest: Greinke and his teammate Shaun Marcum, the Chicago Cubs' Matt Garza, Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster (right), the Philadelphia Phillies' Cole Hamels, Houston's Wandy Rodriguez, Arizona's Joe Saunders (center), Seattle's Jason Vargas and the Oakland¿s Bartolo Colon, among others. The problem is that the Orioles' farm system is top heavy and shallow -- with right-hander Dylan Bundy and shortstop Manny Machado considered the only potential difference-makers. Both are relatively untouchable, especially for a two-month rental. That makes getting a top-tier pitcher unlikely, unless an opposing club still sees one of the Orioles' demoted starters -- Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta or Zach Britton -- as the centerpiece of a deal. The best guess is that once the jockeying and bidding is done, the Orioles will settle for a lower-level starter such as a Rodriguez, Vargas, Saunders or Colon -- someone who can likely improve the rotation but not anchor it. Regardless, Duquette has shown an aggressiveness in his short stint with the Orioles, so a deadline deal for a pitcher is more likely than not. They also could attempt to make a deal to shore up their infield defense and get more consistency out of left field, but for now starting pitching is the priority.
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Any time you can dust off an old Melvin Mora quote, it's a good thing. Mora uttered the above phrase in December 2005, when the Orioles signed catcher Ramon Hernandez but failed to improve the starting pitching staff. Mora is no longer in pro ball, but the familiar refrain in Baltimore remains true. Barring a trade, the Orioles are 85 games into 2012 and only have two set starters: Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen. They've used just eight pitchers to make starts so far this season, compared to 20 at Triple-A Norfolk. But two -- Miguel Gonzalez (center) and Chris Tillman (left) -- made their 2012 big-league starting debuts last week. And the Orioles currently have a fifth-starter hole, which has to be filled Tuesday. Zach Britton (right) is one possibility. Last week, the Orioles demoted three-fifths of their rotation, with Tommy Hunter, Matusz and Arrieta all being sent to Norfolk due to ineffectiveness. Gonzalez and Tillman both pitched well in their first starts and likely will get a couple more opportunities. But the Orioles will be hard pressed to keep pace with such rotation uncertainty. And as good as Hammel and Chen have been, it will be a challenge to duplicate their first halves. Showalter made a point of trying to get both pitchers extra rest in the early months of the season because Hammel has been dealing with a sore knee and Chen is accustomed to pitching every sixth day in Japan. But with only one scheduled off day off between Friday and August 12 -- a span of 30 games in 31 days -- they won't have the luxury of additional rest. It wouldn't be surprising if 10 or more pitchers make a start for the Orioles in the second half, with at least one of the demoted Norfolk trio re-appearing in Baltimore.
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When the Orioles headed to Sarasota this February, they took with them plenty of questions about their 25-man roster. Frankly, most of the head-scratchers still linger -- in one form or another -- as the second half begins Friday. The one question from the spring that seems resolved is the effectiveness of the Orioles' bullpen, which, led by All-Star closer Jim Johnson, has been the best in the American League. But there are still concerns involving the health of right fielder Nick Markakis and second baseman Brian Roberts (though for different reasons than in February), the way manager Buck Showalter must juggle an imperfect offense and, more than anything, the confounding puzzle that is the starting rotation. Here are our annual five questions facing the Orioles at midseason -- and our attempt at answering them -- as the club begins the second half clinging to the second wild card spot in the American League. Most of these will have a familiar ring, but the first one is definitely a surprising curveball. -- Dan Connolly