At a field level, the Orioles' play over the few weeks preceding the nonwaiver trade deadline is only a fraction of the calculus that will go into the decisions that are set to shape the organization in both the short and long term.
The team's sweep at the hands of the Chicago Cubs, followed by a four-game sweep of the Texas Rangers, provided polar data points of not only the team's strengths this year but its weaknesses. And in reality, everyone even near .500 is a playoff contender with two months of baseball remaining.
What will likely drive the Orioles' decisions before the July 31 deadline goes far beyond that. Mix in the financial implications, player value assessments and the inevitable questions of whether a team should get a return for a player before losing him for nothing, and you have the kind of equation that keeps executives up at night.
So while the Orioles try to pull themselves out of their hole in the standings, manager Buck Showalter said executive vice president Dan Duquette is scouring the market and weighing every possibility ahead of the deadline.
"Everything's a little better after a win, but we know what this semi-deadline is," Showalter said. "And I try not to dwell on it, and keep in mind what my job is. Dan has been kind of holed up, working. I haven't seen Dan ... for three or four days. But he's there and he's working. I have a lot of respect for what's going on this time of year.
"This is hard, but we keep pushing."
While Showalter and the Orioles try to finish their 10-game homestand to start the second half with a winning record, here are some of the factors that should inform Duquette's decision on whether to trade away his top stars for value now or hang on to them for another run this year, next year, or both.
Do you think you can make the playoffs this year?
This is a question that's at the root of all of this, but given the answer doesn't change much with a one- or two-game swing, it's likely one Duquette has already answered in his own mind. The Orioles entered Friday 3½ games out of a playoff spot, but three games under .500, and few in the American League (save for the visiting Houston Astros) can boast an outlook that is far better for 2017.
Trading off a reliever or two might not even impact whether the Orioles remain in the race through September. What it would do is drastically undercut their ability to perform should they power through the clutter in the standings and make it to the postseason.
They'd be able to shorten up their rotation in the playoffs, and if they make it, it would probably mean a sustained run of better starts and more consistent offense. Plus, the Orioles' current bullpen entered this series with a collective ERA of 2.61, and is fully stocked and set up for success for the first time in months. They'll be even more valuable in the playoffs, where starts get shorter and days off mean relievers can pitch more often.
All that, though, is prologue to what the real issues the Orioles would be attacking by trading a team-controlled star such as closer Zach Britton or third baseman Manny Machado, to say nothing of players such as Brad Brach, Welington Castillo or Darren O'Day.
How does keeping them impact the team financially for 2018?
With Britton and Machado already making over $11 million with one year of salary arbitration remaining, there's a strong likelihood that even with down seasons they could make as much as $15 million in their final year of team control. Raises for them, Brach, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and pitcher Kevin Gausman could cost the team $20 million.
As it stands, with team options notwithstanding, about $45 million could be coming off the books when pitchers Ubaldo Jiménez, Chris Tillman and Wade Miley, as well as shortstop J.J. Hardy, all hit free agency.
They'll need to use whatever is left in their budget to replace three starting pitchers with scant apparent candidates in their farm system. But if money becomes a concern, and the Orioles decide in the offseason that $15 million is too much for a relief pitcher the same way they did with Jim Johnson ahead of the 2014 season, there's certainly more incentive to get something done now while teams might be willing to overpay to fill a need.
Will their value still hold next summer?
One path forward, however, includes just standing pat and taking another run at the postseason in 2018. Talk to any player in the clubhouse and it's not this season that they see as the end of an era for the Orioles but next year.
So if they rebuild the pitching staff on the cheap and see improvement from some of this year's more disappointing arms, it might be worth another run. And if they try that tact and it doesn't work out, there needs to be an assessment now on what a few months of Machado or Britton in their walk years would mean to a contender this time next summer.
If they're both having seasons in line with their career performance levels, the Orioles should be able to get more than for a typical rental. Their next tier of pending free agents, including Brach, would hold a bit less value in their contract year but would also come with a lower salary.
Now, however, is considered the sweet spot of extracting value from a team-controlled player, as there's two playoff opportunities to try to win with the new talent instead of one.
What can you get when they walk in free agency?
If the answers to all of these lead the Orioles to keep their top players for one final ride in 2018, the season that has loomed as the final year of their window for a long time, the compensation coming their way isn't what it used to be should the players leave via free agency.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
A decade ago, a complicated formula meant even the likes of Brach could bring back a high draft pick if he left in free agency. But two versions of the qualifying offer later, and the return for all but the top free agents has shrunk.
Under the collective bargaining agreement signed last year, a player who rejects the qualifying offer of one year (which could be as high as $20 million in 2018) and signs elsewhere brings a convoluted return.
If the player leaves a team that receives revenue sharing by Major League Baseball's financial formula, which the Orioles do, and signs a contract with $50 million or more guaranteed, the player's former team receives a pick at the end of the first round.
Britton and Machado could easily get deals like that in free agency should they continue at their current production levels, so they make sense. But the Orioles won't risk qualifying offers with lesser free agents, as the return if they leave won't be as strong. It would likely be a pick early on the draft's second day.
The question on this front becomes whether the Orioles can exceed the value of a first-round pick in a trade for either of their top stars. A package for a top reliever has recently held one top-30 prospect in the game, plus several secondary pieces. For the rest, the prospect of losing them for virtually nothing looms large absent a trade.