A first half that brought the Orioles into the All-Star break at 27-62 didn’t answer many questions, save for “What exactly does rebuilding baseball look like?” But the second half will allow the team to make some decisions on present players.
There might be more seasons like this before the Orioles can contend again, but that doesn’t mean they should be without purpose. So, here are five questions they should be seeking to answer as they enter the second half Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays — with assessments due on the whole roster and plenty of young players trying to crack it before the season ends.
1. When will the next wave of prospects arrive?
Having been through this before in different places, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde know the value of a well-regarded young player coming up during the season and taking on a prominent role with the team. This season, the Orioles have already had it happen with Chance Sisco and Anthony Santander, and DJ Stewart earned a chance as well before an ankle injury cut his time short.
Stewart could earn his way back once he’s healthy, although it’s a crowded corner-outfield situation. Perhaps the next set could include outfielder Austin Hays, if he’s healthy enough to log a solid month or so at Triple-A Norfolk after a hamstring injury, or pitchers Hunter Harvey and Dillon Tate out of the bullpen. It’s unlikely the Orioles will get ahead of schedule and promote someone who isn’t on the 40-man roster, such as pitcher Keegan Akin or first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, before they have to. But such players could force the issue.
Until these prospects are truly ready, though, it’s going to be more of the fringe players who are cycled through until the time is right.
2. What does the second half look like for John Means?
The Orioles’ lone All-Star will be well-rested going into his start Saturday against the Rays after not pitching in the American League’s 4-3 win in Cleveland. He’ll have a little under three months to go in a season that’s legitimately earning Rookie of the Year hype.
His 2.50 ERA, however, isn’t really supported by anything that appears sustainable. His fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which is an ERA based on factors a pitcher can control, such as home runs, strikeouts and walks, is a respectable 3.93. His xFIP, which substitutes the league-average home-run/fly-ball rate instead of a pitcher’s actual rate, is 5.14.
Considering it’s his first full year in the majors, and how different Means is from the pitcher who couldn’t crack any prospect lists in the minors, it’s hard to tell what will be sustainable. But the grind of the second half will be a good indicator of Means’ viability going forward.
3. Can anyone bring back a decent haul on the trade market?
Considering the Orioles got a total of 15 players, including 14 minor leaguers, last year in their July trades, it’s certainly not going to be a volume-based operation this year.
For everyone outside of Trey Mancini, and maybe Mychal Givens and Dylan Bundy, who are under decent club control, it’s likely going to be one-for-one or one-for-two returns in all of these trades. The difference will be what the Orioles ask for.
Especially on the pitching side, there’s a much clearer plan in place of what the team wants to target and what it can work with, meaning the ask might be for a pitcher the Orioles really like instead of a package of lottery tickets.
Starting pitching was the strength of last year’s trades, with Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann among the standouts from those deals and Tate looking as if his major league debut is approaching after a move to the bullpen. If someone significant comes back in a trade, even for a rental such as Andrew Cashner, expect him to be a pitcher the organization really wants.
4. Will anyone emerge in the bullpen?
Everyone in the Orioles bullpen has had stretches in which they’ve looked the part and stretches in which they haven’t. They get an unfair portion of the blame even when they pitch badly, considering all the other woes this team has. But consider it this way: this spring, basically every relief job except for Givens’ and Richard Bleier’s was up for grabs. It was never really said, but Miguel Castro was in that group, too.
If that conversation were to happen based on this year's first half, who would be guaranteed a spot? Probably that same group again, but on much more unstable footing. After that, it's a group that's constantly changing, and constantly getting chances to redeem itself.
There are always bullpen options on the waiver market in the offseason that can take the place of some of these players. One, short-time Orioles waiver claim Austin Brice, who was with the team in January but was waived again, has a 1.93 ERA in 28 appearances for the Miami Marlins this year. Those pitchers are out there.
The past few months of the season could see new faces and old ones trying to solidify bullpen roles. It will all be much more pleasant for the Orioles if they achieve what they seek to.
5. Who even makes it to the end of the season?
Seemingly with every move the Orioles make, the roster becomes a little less flexible. Part of the reason so many of these players are here is because their old teams designated them for assignment when they couldn’t send them to the minors any other way, and the catch is that the Orioles can’t either.
So whether it’s relievers such as Aaron Brooks or Shawn Armstrong (though Armstrong has been good enough to not qualify for this), or out-of-minor-league-options players such as Keon Broxton, it will be interesting to see whose tryout extends through the season. Pedro Severino and Hanser Alberto seem to have earned plenty of rope. Rio Ruiz and Dwight Smith Jr. have options left if the team decides give time to other players, though candidates are scarce. Richie Martin is so far into his Rule 5 draft year that it doesn’t make sense to leave that path.