Here are five questions facing the Orioles at the All-Star break
Mine deep enough and you can find positives in the Orioles' 44-44 first half: They played chunks of it without key starters such as catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Jonathan Schoop.
Third baseman Manny Machado has taken another step toward stardom after ending the past two seasons with knee injuries. Lefty Zach Britton is even more efficient at closing games and center fielder Adam Jones, despite dealing with nagging injuries and a revolving cast of outfield mates, is having his best defensive season. No American League team has made fewer errors.
Throw in Ubaldo Jimenez's resurgence and the unexpected emergence of designated hitter Jimmy Paredes and reliever Chaz Roe, and it can't be considered a lost half — especially since the Orioles are only four games behind the first-place New York Yankees in the AL East.
But no way can this club be satisfied with where it is right now. The defending division champions have lost 10 of 13 and are back at .500 — far behind their 52-42 record at last year's All Star break.
Chris Tillman (5.40 ERA) and Bud Norris (6.86) have been major disappointments. The corner outfield spots have been a spinning carousel. Delmon Young and Alejandro De Aza are already off the roster. First baseman Chris Davis has been playing right field recently to fill the void. His power is back (19 homers) but he's struck out 110 times in 307 at-bats.
The Orioles are sixth of 15 AL teams in runs scored and batting average and 10th in on-base percentage. They are second in the league in average with runners in scoring position at .290, but have hit .071 in those situations in their last 11 games (5-for-70).
The pitching staff is also middling, sixth overall in ERA in the AL but 10th in rotation ERA (4.20) and 14th in most innings thrown by starters. The stout bullpen has, for the most part, once again rescued the rotation, posting a 2.90 ERA, third in the league.
The inconsistency can't continue if the Orioles hope to get back to the postseason. Here is our annual All-Star break edition of five questions facing the Orioles, with the best answers we can provide at this confusing, murky point in the club's year.
1. Will they be a buyer at the July 31 trade deadline?: The short answer is yes. Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette is not one to do nothing, and he acknowledges the club needs reinforcements, particularly at the top of the rotation and with a quality bat in left field.
"We're going to continue to try and add to the ballclub to make the club stronger," Duquette said. "We probably have some players at Triple-A that can help us in the second half of the year, and we'll probably look for something to supplement our pitching staff."
Since the Orioles already have six starting pitchers — including Norris, who is relegated to the bullpen — and a few other possibilities in the rotation at Triple-A Norfolk, does that mean he's looking primarily at bullpen help?
"Not necessarily. I just think we are going to try and make our pitching staff stronger," Duquette said. "It might be a starter, it might be a reliever. I'm not sure what the market will be. There are a lot of teams in the hunt that are looking to upgrade their ballclubs, too, so it's going to be very competitive."
Frankly, Duquette's trades are typically under-the-radar acquisitions that fill needs and are not major headliners. Last year, he landed lefty reliever Andrew Miller in a trade that didn't receive a lot of attention, but helped propel the Orioles to the playoffs.
Miller is with the New York Yankees now and the Orioles again could use a shutdown lefty late in games. Brian Matusz has posted a 2.28 ERA in 27 games but has walked an alarming 16 batters.
What this team really needs, though, is an ace to anchor the rotation — and that brings us to the next question.
2. Do the Orioles have what it takes to make a trade deadline splash?: This is a short answer, too. No. Or maybe it should be written this way: Not that they'd be willing to give up. There are plenty of big names floating around the rumor mill this month, including a few aces in Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto, Philadelphia's Cole Hamels and San Diego's James Shields. In addition, an established corner outfielder such as Cincinnati's Jay Bruce or San Diego's Justin Upton could be acquired in the right deal.
But to land those players, another team would have to give up a legitimate building block for the future, and one that likely is ready to play now. Unfortunately for the Orioles, their two top prospects, right-handers Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, have had their 2015 seasons truncated by arm injuries. At this point neither can be considered the centerpiece of a significant deal — maybe a second or third option, but not the main ingredient that gets a deal done.
The Orioles only have three players 25 or younger that currently fit that "big upside, ready to contribute" label right now: Machado, Schoop and starting pitcher Kevin Gausman. The Orioles understandably view all three as major parts of their present and future and almost certainly wouldn't part with any of the three.
The Orioles have some prospects who might be coveted in a less significant deal: third baseman Jomar Reyes, catcher Chance Sisco and pitchers Mike Wright, Mychal Givens and Zach Davies, but they likely would not command an ace in return, even if packaged together.
When asked if he thought he had the inventory to trade for a star this month, Duquette responded flatly: "I don't know the answer to that question. The seller sets the price. Our farm system, we have some good players. But whether we have the wherewithal to make that type of trade, I guess we are going to find out."
3. If losses mount, could the Orioles sell off pending free agents?: A fire sale is highly unlikely. Although maybe a piece or two could be traded if the Orioles hit a tailspin so severe in the next two weeks that they are suddenly 10 games or more out of first place and the wild-card race. If they continue to tread water, though, it would be surprising if they subtracted and not added, especially considering their number of free agents this winter.
A large chunk of their nucleus — Wieters, Davis, Steve Pearce, Wei-Yin Chen, Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Norris — will be eligible for free agency in November. As will injured reliever Wesley Wright, who could be designated for assignment shortly if there is no roster spot open when his injury rehabilitation assignment ends.
According to a source, the Orioles had internal discussions about potentially shopping Davis, since Chris Parmelee has proven to be outstanding defensively. But the consensus is that the club couldn't afford to give up Davis' power bat right now and that any return would have to be significantly better than the compensatory draft pick the club would get this winter if Davis signs elsewhere.
Norris has struggled, but he did win 15 games last year. The Orioles think their bullpen is stronger with him in long relief, but the career starter wants to be in a rotation. It wouldn't be surprising if Norris is dealt, but the return would be minimal given his high ERA and roughly $4-plus million remaining on his contract this year.
4. How will the second half rotation shake out?: At this point, barring injury, Norris looks to be the odd man out, with Gausman expected to re-join the rotation on July 22 or July 23 in New York. Gausman, who has had an unsettled first half, bouncing around in the Orioles' bullpen and rotation, the minors and the disabled list, is expected to get a full opportunity every fifth day in the second half.
Gausman's leash should be long, but the Orioles do have Norris as a potential replacement — he was outstanding in the second half last year —- as well as Wright, Tyler Wilson and Davies in the minors. Tillman needs to pitch better, but manager Buck Showalter is exceptionally loyal to veterans who have served him well in the past.
The Orioles' two-time Opening Day starter will continue to get chances to turn around his season. Given his awful 2014, the skeptics haven't completely abandoned Jimenez, but he's given no indication this year that he can't continue to produce quality outings.
Chen has been the club's best starter and Gonzalez hasn't always pitched to his capabilities, but he's a bulldog who excels against the division. And that should come in handy in September. Really, any one of the current starters, besides the lefty Chen, could lose his spot if another starting pitcher is acquired.
5. Which Oriole has the most to lose or gain in the second half?: It has to be Wieters, who has been eased back into a starting role behind the plate since returning on June 5 from elbow surgery. He started in consecutive games as a catcher for the first time last week and hopes to continue to progress until he is back into a normal rotation of four or five games behind the plate per week.
It would be a win-win for Wieters and the Orioles. A pending free agent, the more he shows he can catch, the deeper his market will be. And the Orioles could use his bat, leadership and experience on the field as much as possible in the second half.
He's hit .265 with three homers in his first 89 at-bats in 2015 after not facing big league pitching for a year. Although backup Caleb Joseph played solidly in Wieters' absence, Wieters' calming presence and big target behind the plate is difficult to replicate.