Baltimore Orioles

With another Orioles season derailed, focus again shifts to future

They entered the All-Star break last year with an interim manager, 27 games out of first place in the American League East and with a 29-59 record that had them on pace for a franchise-worst 109 losses.

Yet the circumstances surrounding the current Orioles appear every bit as dire, and perhaps even more deflating. They have lost seven straight games and 12 of 13. Their starting rotation can't deliver quality or even serviceable starts, their offense can't produce clutch hits and their defense can't consistently turn makeable plays into outs.

At 36-52, the 2011 Orioles' biggest accomplishment is being ahead of last year's record-setting pace for futility. And after finishing last season 34-23 under new manager Buck Showalter, overhauling the coaching staff, adding several accomplished veterans and giving their young nucleus one more year to mature, that's not what this season was supposed to be about.

"I guess I wouldn't classify it as a step back, but we certainly haven't built off the momentum that we started the year with," starter Jeremy Guthrie said. "We had it for a couple of weeks of the season, but we haven't been able to sustain it. With new faces and new components of this team, we have the parts and pieces to do it. We just haven't shown that we can do it consistently yet. Hopefully, that's in our future."

As the Orioles start the second half and a 10-game homestand against the Cleveland Indians on Thursday, the hope for a winning season — the organization's first since 1997 — is all but gone. Instead, the focus has shifted to a familiar place in the Andy MacPhail era: the future.

"It is what it is. I don't think anybody is trying to portray it as the record being anything different than it is," said MacPhail, in his fourth full season as the Orioles' president of baseball operations. "The people understand that. They'll choose to look at it however they choose to look at it. People are awfully sophisticated today. By and large, they know what they are looking at on the field, and they have access to so much information to help evaluate where you are. I think it's pretty clear that we're making progress, we're better. It's just not coming as quickly as I'd like."

Said Showalter: "I know the reality of what's going on. I got it. We've got good people. We just have to put it together. You play every day, and that's a great exposure for strengths and weaknesses."

Showalter and the MacPhail-led front office face a crucial final 21/2 months of the season. They have to decide what to do with impressive shortstop and free-agent-to-be J.J. Hardy and explore the market for several underperforming veterans before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. They have to upgrade a beleaguered pitching staff that has a 6.14 ERA over the past 27 games and rarely has given the Orioles a chance to win in recent weeks. They have to pore over the minor league affiliates and determine whether the Orioles have any prospects at the upper levels of an unbalanced system who can be counted on to occupy key roles in 2012.

And the decisions will have to be made as several Orioles executives, including MacPhail and director of amateur scouting Joe Jordan, enter the final months of their contracts. Orioles owner Peter Angelos told The Baltimore Sun in March that MacPhail is "not going anywhere," but the team's struggles, along with MacPhail's wishes, could certainly factor in that decision.

"Let's just see how we do and how we feel at the end of the year," said MacPhail, who has never said definitively that he wants to return next year in the same capacity. "Obviously, it's a two-party decision. We're going to have to agree. I've always said and will continue to say, 'Let's just see how we do and how we feel at the end of the season.'"

Angelos speaks regularly with MacPhail, but he has also been meeting about once per homestand with Showalter, a departure from the owner's relationships with previous managers. Dave Trembley, Juan Samuel, Sam Perlozzo and Lee Mazzilli didn't communicate with the owner much or, in some cases, at all. MacPhail said he has encouraged the arrangement.

"He's free to talk to whoever he wants. He owns the team," MacPhail said. "You have to remember, as I told Peter, Buck is used to George Steinbrenner, Jerry Colangelo and Tom Hicks. He's probably not going to understand if there is not communication. Plus, why shouldn't Peter have access to what's going on at the ground level during games? Do you think that Bill DeWitt of the Cardinals doesn't talk to [manager Tony La Russa]? That's idiotic to suggest for it to be any other way. There's something wrong if the owner doesn't talk to the manager."

As of about four weeks ago, Angelos, MacPhail and the organization's other top decision-makers had plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the club. Despite being without Hardy, Brian Matusz, Justin Duchscherer, Luke Scott, Derrek Lee, Brian Roberts and Cesar Izturis for good chunks of the first half, the Orioles were just one game under .500 on June 10.

Center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters had made significant strides offensively and defensively. Right fielder Nick Markakis was starting to show signs of busting out, and the rebuilt left side of the infield — Hardy and third baseman Mark Reynolds — was providing power and producing runs.

Matusz had just come back, joining a young and talented rotation that included the emerging Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta. Back-end relievers Jim Johnson, Koji Uehara and Kevin Gregg were converting most of the Orioles' late leads into victories.

However, since moving to 30-31 with a 7-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on June 10 that included a grand slam from Markakis and seven shutout innings from Arrieta, the Orioles have won just six of 27 games. That includes dropping nine of 10 in a first-half-ending road trip on which the Orioles looked woefully overmatched against three of the league's better teams.

"It's frustrating because we know we are a good team with a lot of talent," said Guthrie, who leads the majors with 12 losses despite a 4.18 ERA. "We showed that for a nice stretch to start the season. But for the last 25 or 30 games, we haven't pitched well, we haven't gotten the timely hits, and defensively, we haven't made the big plays that can help you through an inning. Knowing our abilities, it makes it a little tougher to accept how poorly that we've played."

Markakis is the second-longest-tenured player on the club, and he maintains this is "hands down, the most talented" Orioles team he has been on. However, that hasn't translated into the standings.

"We've got some guys in a funk right now, and they need to learn how to overcome it," Markakis said. "I know from experience, and I've learned from it. You have to move on. We have the talent, we have the ability. It's just a matter of putting it together. I think that's what we've lacked, but it's definitely going to come. I feel good about it, and a lot of guys feel good about it. But when you're all over the place, it definitely makes it tough. That's no excuse. We have guys that that we're putting on the field every day, and we're just not getting it done. It's tough, and it's frustrating."

Several Orioles pointed to their strong finish to last season after Showalter took over as proof that there is still plenty to be gained over the final 21/2 months. However, the key to that run was the Orioles' starting pitching, a group that is in shambles.

The Orioles' projected five-man rotation when spring training broke was Guthrie, Matusz, Chris Tillman, Arrieta and Brad Bergesen. Britton was promoted to the big leagues when Matusz went to the disabled list on Opening Day.

Of that group, Matusz and Tillman are getting uneven results in Triple-A, Britton is in Double-A after compiling a 6.86 ERA over his past eight big league starts, Arrieta has had recent elbow discomfort, and Bergesen and his 5.65 ERA are in the bullpen. Their issues — and the organization's alarming lack of pitching depth — have forced the club to rely on career minor leaguers such as Mitch Atkins, Chris Jakubauskas and Alfredo Simon to make starts.

It's no wonder that the Orioles have the worst team ERA in baseball at 4.76. The ERA of their starters is 5.00, third worst in the game, ahead of those of the Kansas City Royals (5.13) and Chicago Cubs (5.29). Orioles starters have gone six innings or more twice in the past 16 games, compiling a 9.56 ERA during that span and taxing an already-vulnerable bullpen.

"We knew going in that we were depending on our young starting pitching and that they will continue to perform to the level close that they did the last two months last year. Up until this point, they haven't been able to do it," MacPhail said. "We just got to get the starting pitching back on track. We've only had like three quality starts in the last three weeks. That is going to take a toll on all aspects of the team."

Basically, the Orioles are left hoping for a similar pitching renaissance to the one that occurred last year, when the starters posted a 3.10 ERA after Showalter took over Aug. 2.

"I am not going to say the world is going to end if we don't win X number of games," Showalter said. "Nothing is ever as good as it seems, nothing is ever as bad as it seems. You try to stay positive. You are talking to a guy who lost 97 games [with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998] and then we won 100 [with Arizona] the next year. I know how quickly things can change, good and bad. It gives you a grip on reality. I've told you all along, if we get the starting pitching figured out, we are going to have some fun."

Baltimore Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.