ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Mired in a struggle just to stay close to .500 with a pitching staff amid an unprecedented slump and a lineup whose top producers haven't lived up to their billing, the short-term question of whether the Orioles can turn it around is already being considered with the longer term in mind.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette said it's "a little premature" for talk of tearing down a team that has been a contender for years and was, at least internally, expected to be one again. But the only thing that can prevent the Orioles from being stripped down for parts would be a dramatic improvement in the on-field product.
"Our aim was to be a contender, and the first quarter of the season we were," Duquette said. "For the second quarter, we haven't been up to that standard."
That the season isn't halfway over, and that the Orioles have had such disparate stretches through the first 73 games, makes predicting this season's fate difficult. Analysts look at a team in free-fall with assets toward the end of their contracts and a thin farm system, and call for the Orioles to sell. Others look at the American League standings and see a dozen teams, the Orioles included, right there in the hunt for a playoff spot. But no one at any level of the organization sees a team playing well enough to be considered a contender.
"And honestly, we've seen these guys play a lot better than they've played the last month, and we've seen guys pitch a lot better than they have the last month," Duquette said. "We've seen more competitive games over a longer period of time. But having said that, the way we're playing now is not going to be good enough to be a playoff team."
"You're talking to somebody who hasn't looked at the standings for about three weeks," manager Buck Showalter said. "I just know we have to play better. … You always seek your level, as sobering as it might be. There's such a small separator in seasons. You've got so many teams with just pure talent that are pretty close. There's just so many small separators, unless you really have a deficiency in, say, starting pitcher or bullpen or defense. Those things are hard to overcome."
So, a path forward for management will be gleaned in the coming weeks off a determination of what was closer to the team's true form — the first month-plus of the season built on close wins, buoyed by good pitching that masked its offensive struggles, or the stretch that has followed. The latter has been all-around disappointing, but a pitching staff that on Friday tied a major league record by allowing five or more runs for a 20th straight game took most of the blame.
If there's an area to address before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, Duquette said that's it.
"Our pitching hasn't been up to standards," Duquette said. "We're going to keep our eye out and try to get our pitching back to a competitive level, and see if we can make some additions to the team and see where we are in terms of contending for a playoff spot."
Those who argue against that and posit that it's time to break down this hopeful contender by shipping out its valuable elements have plenty of arguments. The Orioles' run differential of -73 entering Saturday, which is almost exclusively built on this bad three-week stretch of pitching, puts their expected win-loss record of 29-44, well below where they are in reality.
They also point to a farm system that has produced current roster mainstays Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop and Trey Mancini in the past few years but is considered thin on impact talent for the near future.
Combine that with the fact that many of the team's most attractive assets — Machado, closer Zach Britton, reliever Brad Brach and center fielder Adam Jones — are out from team control by the end of the 2018 season, and catcher Welington Castillo could prove a useful trade chip this year, and there's a chance to add for the future.
Even so, only Brach might be at his peak value now. And with at least the bullpen set to stabilize with a couple of fixtures returning from injury, most of the outside rhetoric about the club nearing decision time rings hollow inside the clubhouse.
"There's always going to be trade rumors," Brach said. "Obviously, we still believe we can win here. It hasn't really come into here yet, but we know we've got to start playing better or else teams are going to be looking at pieces here, because there's a lot of good pieces here on this team. …
"We're not naïve. We know that next year, a lot of guys are up or getting close to being up in their contracts. We know the window is getting tinier here to win, but that's why we're here — to win. It's one of those things where we know what the media is saying, but at the same time, we know what we have here and what we can do can be special. We've just got to get it rolling in the other direction and turn things around."
Any direction other than the one they're headed would be an improvement. Brach noted that the recent 13-28 stretch could leave a team 10 or 15 games out of a playoff spot in some years, but this season's American League is keeping things bunched up. Entering Friday, the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays were 11th and 12th in the league standings but 2 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot. Such margins mean a strong stretch or two could completely change the landscape, and the Orioles, at least for now, are holding out hope for that.
But there's no hiding from the reality of the spot they have put themselves in. Everyone is aware of the outside forces, Jones said.
"Everybody knows the contacts that are coming up," he said. "We all know. But at the end of the day, we all know that we're here now. If we become sellers, some pieces can be moved. I know that a hard piece to move is Machado and another one is Britton, because they're cornerstones of the franchise and they provide a lot of value.
"But on the other side of that is we can go on this whole road trip, two [series wins] and we're right back in the middle of it, in second or first or third, and nobody is even mentioning it. You've got to take it with a grain of salt. There's always going to be some story. There's always going to be something. If you handle today, you don't have to worry about it."
Duquette is holding out hope that the team's veteran players can return to the form of their prior track records before it's time to make such decisions on the future of the franchise
"These are all established major leaguers we're running out there," Duquette said. "We've got a number of established major leaguers who we know can do better. It's in the book. They have done better.
"If we get a little bit more time, maybe the second wild card gives a lot of teams hope. And once you get into that playoff situation, a lot of teams have advanced from that wild-card spot and done well in the playoffs. There's more baseball to play, and our aim is to try to get back to playing the kind of baseball that fans are used to from the Baltimore Orioles."