When grading Orioles, it's finally time to judge them on current status

Let's be honest. The hardest thing about evaluating the Orioles organization at the nonmathematical halfway point in the 2014 season is trying to do that without depending on the two most obvious measuring sticks.

It would be easy to simply look at the American League East standings and the Orioles' strong performance over the past few weeks and give the club an "A" for overcoming several major obstacles to take control of the division.

And it's always tempting to grade on a curve that takes into account just how unsuccessful this team was for so long. Those 14 straight losing seasons still loom large in the collective psyche of the fans and the media, which is why there's a significant segment of the Orioles faithful that is just happy to have a competitive team.

So, maybe the time finally has come to judge the franchise on its current merits and hold Dan Duquette's front office and manager Buck Showalter to the standards they articulated when they set out to turn the organization in the right direction.

Certainly, they have succeeded and appear to have the Orioles on the way to their third straight winning season, but that doesn't necessarily mean they deserve the highest possible grade for the machinations that allowed the club to reach the All-Star break with the second-biggest lead (four games) among the six divisions.

In fact, if Duquette was listed among all the Orioles who received a midseason letter grade in The Baltimore Sun this week, he would only get a "B."

That's not a bad grade, of course, but it might come as a surprise to those who feel Duquette split the atom when he signed likely team Most Valuable Player Nelson Cruz to a bargain-basement contract during spring training.

Duquette does deserve a lot of credit for that, since this year's unofficial team slogan is: "Where would we be without Nelson?"

Cruz is the reason the Orioles have been able to overcome the loss of catcher Matt Wieters and the first-half struggles of 2013 Orioles MVP Chris Davis, AL Platinum Glove winner Manny Machado and AL Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Cruz's first-half heroics also make it easy to forget that the rest of Duquette's dynamic spring spending spree has not panned out so well. He got Cruz for one year at a paltry $8 million, but he also spent nearly $60 million to sign right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez, Suk-Min Yoon and former Cy Young Award-winning left-hander Johan Santana.

The Orioles gambled heavily on Jimenez being the guy who was one of the best pitchers in baseball at the end of last year instead of the mechanical mystery who lost 17 games in 2012. Though it would be fair to reserve judgment on the wisdom of that four-year deal for more than a half-season, the likelihood of a dramatic near-term resurgence faded when Jimenez went on the disabled list with an ankle sprain and Showalter hinted that he might be staying there for awhile.

What no one can deny is Duquette's ability to create playable depth out of thin air and push the right buttons in a roster crunch. He also should get delayed applause for the unpopular decision to jettison 50-save closer Jim Johnson over the winter.

Showalter would get a slightly higher grade — perhaps a B+ — because of his always solid game management, his deft handling of the new closer situation and the counterintuitive decision to keep right-handed-hitting catcher Caleb Joseph over the left-handed-hitting Steve Clevenger when the Orioles acquired veteran Nick Hundley.

It's tough to second-guess anything Showalter does, because he always seems to be a couple moves ahead of everybody else. But he probably wishes that he had kept first baseman Chris Davis on the DL a little longer to make sure the effects of his oblique strain did not linger into the summer. There's also a case to be made that his attempt to emphasize plate discipline and situational hitting in spring training went unheeded by some key players.

There are bigger challenges ahead for Showalter, and how he handles them could determine whether the Orioles stay at the front of the AL East and make a deep playoff run. The situation with Jimenez will be a touchy one throughout, and there may come a time when Davis' struggles require managerial intervention.

The Orioles can only hope that both players rebound when it matters most, because that would make the club a very formidable contender down the stretch.

In the meantime, the team as a whole rates a solid "B" for the way it has risen to the top of the AL East by piling up wins against its struggling division rivals. The Orioles might even grade out a little higher if we were still judging them through the prism of their recent history, but maybe — finally — it's high time to stop doing that.



Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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