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Baltimore Orioles

Orioles reset: Can Baltimore walk tightrope of competing this season while also keeping rebuild on track?

CINCINNATI — The Orioles have played themselves into an interesting position. With 102 games behind them and the trade deadline looming Tuesday, there isn’t a clear approach for executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias to follow as there has been in previous years.

With 51 wins, Baltimore is one win away from matching its 2021 total. The Orioles are three away from matching their number of victories in 2019. They’ve already passed the 47-win 2018 team — proof that the rebuild is nearing fruition, even if it’s slightly ahead of schedule.

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So, do the Orioles (51-51) sell? Or, with the final wild-card spot just three games out of reach, do they buy at the deadline?

The answer is likely somewhere in between, closer to standing pat than shipping off the names that have helped the Orioles creep back into relevance. The challenge for Elias at the deadline is whether he can successfully walk the tightrope of competing this season while also keeping the rebuild on track — or break up the chemistry in the clubhouse that has helped Baltimore reach this position.

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“I hope that none of the pieces that help really build that chemistry go, but it is baseball, and that’s a big part of the game,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “Just gotta show up and hope I see all the same nameplates on the lockers leading up to the deadline.”

That’s all a player can do, away from the decision-making process that goes on in the front office. Right-hander Jordan Lyles, a trade candidate, said a sell-off would be “maybe a little bit” disappointing, considering the season the Orioles have had thus far.

“But everyone knows this is a business, and we all know people have to do their jobs and do what they think is best for the organization,” he said.

Among the players most heavily linked to trades are Lyles, first baseman Trey Mancini and outfielder Anthony Santander. With a ripe market for relief talent, closer Jorge López could also attract interest. As of Sunday night, though, there hadn’t been any movement.

And as Baltimore weighs adding to the roster at the deadline — targeting a starting pitcher with team control would be the main priority — there’s a sense among those around the organization that Elias isn’t likely to enter a bidding war.

The potential departures of some players might be particularly hard to stomach. Mancini, the longest-tenured Oriole, is a clubhouse leader and has said he wants to “stay around and see what we can do.” After overcoming stage 3 colon cancer in 2020, he proved he could return to the highest level of the game and succeed. There’s interest in the 30-year-old around the league, but his case could be trickier for Elias.

“He’s meant so much to us, and he’s a heck of a teammate,” outfielder Ryan McKenna said. “It would be tough. It would be really tough. He’s been an Oriole for so long, so it would definitely be a transition to see him in another uniform.”

So much of the success this season can be traced back to the camaraderie manager Brandon Hyde often references, with energy in the dugout a key reason for 23 comeback wins. By the middle of May, Hyde said, “that’s when I knew we had a chance to surprise some people and play some good baseball,” because of the connection his players share in the clubhouse.

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There’s a danger to breaking that up at the deadline. Elias said earlier this month the front office takes “everything into account” when it comes to trades, and the overall chemistry would be one of those focuses.

Asked whether the path Elias chooses at the deadline would send a message to the clubhouse — be it an indication the Orioles can compete for the playoffs or a figurative white flag on the season — Santander didn’t think so.

“Maybe for the fans,” Santander said. “But for us? No. Because our mentality is to come here every day and play hard and win games. Even if they sell, even if somebody leaves, I feel like that’s the mentality: go out there and try to win again.”

Lyles thought “there’s probably some message to be said for whatever direction the front office GM goes,” but players in the clubhouse aren’t “thinking about it, worrying about it,” during games.

For the most part, the squad the Orioles have now stay intact beyond the deadline. Most of the roster still has team control after this year, lowering the need for a move. And from a player’s side, the immediate focus is the next game, not the deadline.

“They can do whatever they want,” Santander said with a laugh and a wave of his hand. “That’s baseball.”

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What’s to come?

After dropping two of three games to the Reds, the Orioles travel to face the Texas Rangers before returning to Camden Yards. Once mid-August arrives, Baltimore will face a heavy dose of American League East opponents. With the trade deadline Tuesday, there will soon be a better sense of the way the Orioles view the remaining two months of the year.

What was good?

Once again, the Orioles’ bullpen kept them in games. Even with three runs against right-handers Bryan Baker and Félix Bautista in the series finale against Cincinnati on Sunday, the overarching performances were solid.

That group allowed six earned runs in 29 1/3 innings over the last week.

What wasn’t?

The offensive support behind that bullpen has been nearly nonexistent, scoring 10 runs in three games against a Reds pitching staff that entered Sunday with the worst ERA in baseball (5.16). Ryan Mountcastle remains in a slump, going 3-for-34 in his last nine games, and Baltimore combined to strike out 21 times between losses Saturday and Sunday.

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“We’re not doing [the bullpen] any favors,” Hyde said. “We’re not scoring. You have to be able to score. You have to be able to get a lead and be able to add on. We’re not doing enough offensively, honestly, to help out our pitching.”

On the farm

Infielder Joey Ortiz put on a show in July for Double-A Bowie, batting .404 for the month. He hit five home runs as part of his 13 extra-base hits, drove in 19 runs and posted a 1.112 OPS. There’s a throng of infield talent in Baltimore’s pipeline, and the path toward a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk is blocked currently by Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson, among others.

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But that path could clear should the Orioles call up some of those prospects after the trade deadline to offset any potential moves. Before July, Ortiz had hit .206 for the Baysox.

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