SCHMUCK: Chemistry problems may prevent Orioles from finding winning formula
This is that point in the major league season when inquiring minds want to know about the true state of their team and, quite frankly, the state of the Orioles is not good.
The team that looked almost unbeatable for most of June has floundered badly in July and finds itself at the All-Star break facing a long, tough road trip that could determine whether the last window of opportunity in its present form slams shut two months early.
If that sounds unduly negative after a first half in which the Orioles survived a series of significant injuries to reach the All-Star break with a .500 record, perhaps it is. But there is something about the club's current chemistry that doesn't signal another big second-half surge like the one that allowed the Orioles to run away from the rest of the American League East in 2014.
Maybe that disturbing vibe is the normal result of the truly frustrating two-week period that followed the terrific upturn that preceded it. Maybe the slumping hitters will suddenly regain their edge and take out their frustration on the Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. Maybe Dan Duquette has something up his sleeve that will change the subject and provide a spark like the Andrew Miller deal last summer.
Or maybe the fact that this team is on the verge of a dramatic offseason roster shakeup has started to take root in the minds of some of the impact players who are all but certain to say goodbye and some of the others who will be saying goodbye to them.
It's a little early for that, but with the July 31 trade deadline looming and the Orioles front office still bedeviled by option inflexibility, well, playing baseball at the major league level is hard enough when you're not looking over your shoulder.
Changing emotional equation: That's the key difference between this year and last. Buck Showalter makes no apology for playing with a constantly changing roster. But the optionability of the extra players (and some regulars) last year made it easy to sell the program to guys who knew they were important to the club and had confidence that they would be back.
This year, they have seen the same kind of moves, but undoubtedly view them from a different angle. Some key players from last year's title run did not return, and recently, a couple of other key players from last year — Alejandro De Aza and Delmon Young — were sent packing permanently because of the numbers crunch.
Showalter's mindset hasn't changed. This is what a team like the Orioles has to do to remain competitive in a division that includes three free-spending teams. The players might understand that intellectually, but the circumstances — year over year — have changed the emotional equation considerably.
The departure of longtime right fielder Nick Markakis certainly didn't help because it reminded everyone that no one is ever really safe. Young didn't fit as well on this year's team, especially after Jimmy Paredes took over as the full-time designated hitter, but his release was not popular in some corners of the clubhouse. The De Aza DFA and trade didn't really raise any eyebrows until he suddenly found his swing and played a surprising role in the Red Sox's recent resurgence.
Though the Orioles still appear to have solid on-field leadership and enough talent to make another run, there is no doubt that the presence of a large number of pending free agents has had an impact on the contentment factor in the clubhouse.
Chen dust-up: The Wei-Yin Chen dust-up a few weeks ago is a good example. If the Orioles had sent him down for one start to gain some roster space a year ago, it's unlikely agent Scott Boras would have raised a fuss. And it's pretty obvious that walk-year considerations have made it difficult for Bud Norris to accept a fairly logical demotion to the bullpen.
What happens next is anybody's guess. If the Orioles struggle during this upcoming road trip, it will likely prompt speculation about the availability of slugger Chris Davis and some of the other potential free agents, but it seems highly unlikely that Duquette would do anything that smacks of giving up on this season.
He has said publicly that he hopes to be a buyer at the nonwaiver trade deadline, though the Orioles really don't have an Eduardo Rodriguez to deal for a significant pitching addition this time.
Duquette is in a tough spot and so is his team, which needs a major dose of its storied resilience right about now.