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Examining the trade market for pitchers and whether the Orioles can make a deal

Twice this month, the Orioles have demoted a starting pitcher from the rotation, only to have him rejoin it shortly thereafter out of circumstance and necessity.

There are only so many alternatives inside the organization, and when the Orioles begin to assess the market to add starters through trades over the next few weeks, they might be left wanting as well.

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Executive vice president Dan Duquette said this week that the Orioles are open to adding to what's already a first-place team with the halfway point of the season approaching. What they find on the market will be another conversation entirely.

"Our team is where we want to be — in contention — so now we need to look around and see where we can strengthen the ballclub to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Duquette said. "The first step is to get to the playoffs, and once you get to the dance you've got to have the wherewithal to follow through and win the games. Some of that is luck. Some of it is talent. But we know we need to add some more talent."

When it comes to in-season talent infusions, the Orioles have less than six weeks to gauge whether those will come from within the organization or outside of it. If it's outside, they'll be one of a host of teams that will have to talk themselves into the available pitchers being worthy upgrades.

There's a top tier of possible trade-chip pitchers like Sonny Gray of the Oakland Athletics and Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves who would command a bounty only a select few teams can match. By comparison, the Braves traded young starter Shelby Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks last offseason for a young major league outfielder in Ender Inciarte and two top prospects, including 2015 No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson.

Packages mooted for Gray and Teheran, in anticipation of them being available, far outweigh what the Orioles could offer.

That leaves another tier of injury risks and pop-up pitchers who might be able to make an impact provided they maintain their current levels. That list includes the likes of Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, San Diego Padres left-hander Drew Pomeranz and Athletics left-hander Rich Hill.

Hill is on the disabled list with a groin strain and is working as a full-time starter for the first time since 2009 with the Orioles, though he has a 2.25 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 64 innings this season. Pomeranz is also a full-time starter for the first time since 2012, and has struck out 96 batters in 81 innings with a 3.00 ERA. Hellickson is on a one-year, make-good deal with the Phillies and has a 4.41 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings.

There are other names being bandied about — expensive and underperforming veterans like Francisco Liriano of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and right-hander Ricky Nolasco of the Minnesota Twins. Their impact would simply be to add someone who could consistently get the Orioles into the sixth inning every fifth game.

The problems with the starting pitching trade market are twofold. The first problem is that with a second wild card, fewer teams will concede they're out of the race and willing to sell by the Aug. 1 nonwaiver trade deadline. Teams can turn their fortunes around quickly, as evidenced by the Houston Astros owning the second-worst record in the American League a month ago before going 20-8 since May 24 to bring themselves back into contention.

Only a handful of teams — including the Braves, Athletics, Padres, Twins and Cincinnati Reds seem truly out of it, while the Phillies seem to be falling off after a surprising start. That means more buyers, and thus a higher price for the Orioles to pay. That's the second issue.

While improved, the Orioles farm system is at the point where any reduction in top-level talent will be difficult to stomach. One American League scout, who cannot be named as he's not authorized to speak on behalf of his organization on other teams' players, has scouted the Orioles extensively and doesn't see how they can put together a package for an impact starter.

The Orioles' high minor league affiliates feature players who some scouts like more than others, like first baseman Trey Mancini and outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, and post-prospect left fielder Christian Walker. None can carry a major deal for a starting pitcher.

There is some pitching depth at Double-A Bowie, including left-hander Chris Lee, plus righties Parker Bridwell and Davis Hess. But Lee is dealing with a lat strain and Bridwell hasn't pitched since May 22 because of a broken rib.

To outside evaluators, the top trade assets the Orioles boast include Bowie catcher Chance Sisco, High-A Frederick third baseman Jomar Reyes and Low-A Delmarva shortstop Ryan Mountcastle, all of whom possess the potential for impact bats down the road. Frederick catcher Jonah Heim is an asset for his defense.

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There's also another tier of lottery tickets, like Frederick reliever Tanner Scott, who possesses a high-90s fastball from the left side but struggles commanding it. Delmarva's pitching staff is full of players who could be complementary pieces in a deal, like 19-year-old right-hander Ofelky Peralta, starter Cristian Alvarado, and relievers Ryan Meisinger, Garrett Cleavinger and Patrick Baker.

Duquette said the Orioles "have the wherewithal to make trades to improve the team," and doesn't seem to have come off his idea that the major league club is the priority, meaning they could again sacrifice future potential for present value in the heat of a pennant race.

That was the case in 2013 when they used Jake Arrieta to bring back Scott Feldman, 2014 when Eduardo Rodriguez went to the Boston Red Sox for Andrew Miller, and 2015 when Zach Davies was the price for Gerardo Parra.

"That's why we're in the business, right? So we can try to take a shot at it," Duquette said. "So, when you have a chance to go for it, you have to go for it."

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Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

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