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If it looks like the Orioles are stuck in some kind of trade deadline twilight zone, well, that appearance is not deceiving.

Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter fielded questions from season-ticket holders Saturday afternoon during the club's annual State of the Orioles event, but there really wasn't much to say beyond expressing a desire for the team to play better and the obvious need to improve the starting rotation.

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The July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline is just over a week away and the front office is in limbo. The Orioles just got done teasing their fans with a four-game sweep of the struggling Texas Rangers and now are in the middle of a reality check against a Houston Astros team that entered Saturday on pace for 108 wins.

The trick right now is to figure out whether the team that had the best record in baseball on May 9 (22-10) is still worth salvaging after running up one of the worst records in the major leagues since then (24-40 entering Saturday).

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette still optimistic team can contend this season

The fact that the Orioles looked that good against the Rangers doesn't really mean a thing … and if they lose a series against the runaway first-place Astros this weekend, it really won't mean anything either.

What was apparent during the question-and-answer session Saturday is something Orioles fans should already know. Duquette has never been inclined to give up on a season and he hinted that he might still be a buyer at the deadline.

That conclusion was buttressed when he bristled at a question that suggested the Orioles were shopping a large number of their star-quality players, though Duquette almost certainly has been fielding offers for several of them.

"I don't believe all this stuff that says we have half of our club on the market, because we have a lot of baseball left to be played," Duquette said, but that was right after talking all the way around the buyer/seller question that has been hanging over the franchise for the past several weeks .

What choice does he have but to consider all possibilities? The Orioles entered Saturday night eight games out of first place in the American League East and 4½ games out of the second wild-card spot. If that wild-card deficit doesn't seem like all that much, keep in mind that the Orioles are one of six trailing teams within that range.

If it were only a question of mathematics, there would be a better case to be made for staying the course. But Duquette faces a complex economic and competitive landscape and he has only a few days to navigate it.

The Orioles would have all sorts of options if they decide to sell off some parts to build a brighter future. Closer Zach Britton is a valuable asset and appears most likely to be dealt to a top World Series contender. Manny Machado would bring back considerable value, though he appears to be untouchable — for now.

The bigger challenge, of course, would be trying to improve the pitching staff with one or more deadline deals to keep the current window of opportunity open through 2018. The Orioles have traded away several good pitching prospects at midseason over the past five years, which is one of the reasons the Triple-A cupboard is so bare that they desperately need rotation help.

Outside of on-field performance, the Orioles have plenty to weigh in determining a course at the July 31 trade deadline

Duquette told the season-ticket holders that he is trying to upgrade the club's starting pitching, but in the same breath conceded that the chances of acquiring a quality starter by the deadline are — to put it mildly — not very good.

"It's a really critical issue to having a good team year in and year out to have good starting pitching, but the fact of the matter is, there aren't enough really good starters to go around the league," Duquette said. "So when you have them, you've got to maximize that, and when you don't have them, you've got to start looking for more. We're always looking for more."

The Orioles would be in much better position to predict their own future if they were more decisive at times like this. They should have decided by now whether they will be able to sign Machado long term, for instance, but it's just not their organizational nature.

For those season-ticket holders who were burning to know where this is all going, Showalter had a few words of advice.

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"Stay tuned,'' he said. "There's a lot of baseball left to be played."

Not sure if that was very comforting.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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