When the Chicago Cubs arrive at Camden Yards on Friday for a three-game set to open the second half of the season, the Orioles will be in a sprint toward the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline to see just where they sit in the muddled American League playoff race.
With four games and five teams between them and the second wild-card playoff spot, the Orioles have some simple baseball questions to answer on the field against the Cubs, Texas Rangers and Houston Astros during this homestand, as well as some big-picture ones for the front-office to try to figure out.
Here are five major questions the Orioles face.
What will the rotation look like for the rest of the year? The Orioles won't move into playoff contention without a big leap forward by their starting pitchers. Collectively, the rotation's ERA of 5.75 is second worst in the major leagues and highest in the AL, and making a case about what to do with it in the second half essentially revolves around the team's intentions.
The only two people whose spots should be guaranteed are Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. Bundy has cooled off, but as long as the team is competitive, he should be starting every fifth day, while Gausman needs to show he can turn his season around and give hope for himself going forward.
Otherwise, Chris Tillman, Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jiménez are in their final year of team control (though Miley has a $12 million club option for 2018). They aren't attractive trade pieces if the team tries to get something for their expiring contracts, but the lack of a commitment to them means the team might not have as much rope in letting them figure it out.
Tillman hasn't been the same since injuring his shoulder in August,while Jiménez has been the same pitcher for his four years in Baltimore and Miley has been every bit as frustrating. How the rotation shakes out coming out of the break, and in the ensuing few weeks, will be interesting with manager Buck Showalter expressing interest in seeing more from left-hander Jayson Aquino and the possibility of adding a starting pitcher from outside the organization.
Which of the bats turn around? Players and management believe there's credence to the idea that, at least offensively, players will find their career levels by the end of the season. The Orioles need several to do that in the second half for their prospects to change.
Third baseman Manny Machado is batting .230, albeit with 18 home runs. Right fielder Mark Trumbo is hitting .254 with 14 home runs, far off his 2016 power pace. And first baseman Chris Davis, before his oblique injury, was hitting just .226, though with 14 home runs.
If Machado keeps his power pace but hits .300 the rest of the way, as many believe he's capable of, that would mean more runners on base and more hittable pitches for Trumbo and Davis.Trumbo could still land easily within his pre-2016 career range, even if the team hopes for more. Davis might find reason, considering his injury, to shorten his swing and hit for more average.
Combined, those three players could change the complexion of an offense that has been relying too heavily on the supplementary performances of All-Star second baseman Jonathan Schoop and rookie outfielder-first baseman Trey Mancini.
How will Chris Davis fit back into the picture? With the Orioles' big-money first baseman back in the fold Friday, there are a few short-term questions to answer about how he fits back in.
Mancini will likely cede first base back to Davis, returning to a regular rotation between left field and designated hitter, swapping the latter with Trumbo when he's not in right field.
But the lineup construction could present a problem. Showalter said there's no egos on that front in his clubhouse, but Schoop ascended to the No. 3 spot for good reason, with Machado batting second regularly in Davis' absence and center fielder Adam Jones, Trumbo and Mancini in the middle third of the lineup.
That means Davis' return will require someone to move out of one of those prime lineup spots, unless Showalter pulls off a move he's long-threatened and puts Davis in the leadoff spot. As odd as it sounds for a player with a 38 percent strikeout rate to bat leadoff, his .320 OBP is fourth on the team among regulars and not far off the .329 mark primary leadoff man Seth Smith has posted.
Consider that 11 of his 14 home runs this year have come with the bases empty, making it 58 of 99 in the past three years, and there's an argument to be made he's perhaps better suited for a role where he's not coming up with men on as often, at least this year.
What to do at the trade deadline? Those first few questions can be answered at the field level. This one goes beyond that. Simply put, the Orioles probably have 10 days to play themselves back into the thick of the wild-card race before executive vice president Dan Duquette has to consider trading some of the team's assets.
Outside of Tillman, Jiménez and Miley, the Orioles have only a few players in the last year of their deal who could be rentals for another club, including catcher Welington Castillo (who has a player option for 2018), Smith and outfielder Hyun Soo Kim.
The more attractive pieces are free agents after 2018 — Machado, closer Zach Britton, setup man Brad Brach and even center fielder Adam Jones.
Moving any of those players, especially with the chance to bring back almost the same core for one last shot at a pennant in 2018, will be a clear signal the Orioles are entering a rebuild. Moving one of the players in his walk year would be less so, especially considering the depth at the positions they fill. And going the other way and adding would be an expensive proposition, given the paucity of quality starting pitchers on the market and the cost associated with getting them.
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What about a look to the future? If the Orioles want to look from within for reinforcements, there aren't many options.
Catcher Chance Sisco, the team's top prospect, worked through a slow start to find his swing at Triple-A Norfolk by the All-Star break. Reports on his defense from the club are also positive, though outside opinions are less so. He could spend some time in the major leagues in the second half if the club moves on from Castillo and look toward the future, though Francisco Peña stands between them on the depth chart.
On the pitching front, it's difficult to say who could be in line for a debut. The top pitching performer in the whole minor league system is left-hander Tanner Scott, a reliever by trade who is making three-inning starts every five games in the Double-A Bowie rotation to build up his arm. He has a 1.84 ERA and needs to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason, though the club seems split about whether to move him back to the bullpen so quickly.
Otherwise, Aquino is probably the top piece of starting depth after a few strong spot starts this season, though no one has emerged behind him. Left-hander Chris Lee has a 6.32 ERA. Right-hander Gabriel Ynoa has a 7.64 ERA at Norfolk, albeit with some better performances in the majors.
The best spot to look for reinforcements in the minors will be the bullpen, where candidates such as left-hander Andrew Faulkner, right-hander Richard Rodriguez and right-hander Lucas Long could be off-the-radar candidates.