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At A Crossroads, No Easy Answer To Which Path Orioles Should Take

July 17, 2017
I'm always careful of being too dramatic when it comes to writing about a particular baseball season, because each is unique and each has its ebbs and flows.

Oftentimes, we have thought one thing was going to happen, and suddenly the opposite occurred.

Remember when the Orioles were going to have to prepare for life without reliever Darren O'Day and first baseman Chris Davis? And then, in the winter of 2015-16, the Orioles found a way to pay for both. 

That's why I hesitate to type these words: But I believe they've already been handwritten on the warehouse wall, anyway.

These Orioles are at a crossroads this month. 

Decisions made during the days leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline may have a profound impact on this organization for years. Even calculated inaction may cause some serious ripples.

The deal is this: The Orioles have several key players who will be free agents at the end of 2018. Although the team would love to keep everyone together and battle for a World Series championship this season and next, a rotation in tatters during the first half of 2017 makes those dreams rather unrealistic.

If pitching is, indeed, the key to MLB titles, these current Orioles aren't in position to make a real run. Heading into this season, the hope was that they could compete if right-handers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy took the next step forward, veteran Chris Tillman remained his steady self and left-hander Wade Miley and/or enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez could be consistently solid.

Bundy lunged ahead -- despite his struggles in late June/early July. Nothing else went as expected -- unless you count Miley and Jimenez being maddeningly inconsistent.

Tillman dealt with shoulder discomfort all spring and into the season and was limited to 11 first-half starts, and he struggled to keep his ERA under 8.00. Gausman, who took over Opening Day duties from Tillman, had a disastrous first half, posting a 5.85 ERA and allowing 128 hits and 43 walks in 97 innings.

All of that combined produced an American League-worst 5.07 ERA and a horrendous 5.75 rotation ERA, the worst in the AL and second-highest in the majors.

So, yeah, the rotation inspires no postseason feelings at this point.

But given that most AL teams are flawed and that there are two wild-card spots available for the taking, the Orioles could spin a disappointing first half into the belief that they hit rock bottom and still are within striking distance of the postseason.

And, the reality is, once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen. It's not like these Orioles couldn't get hot for a month -- they went 22-10 to begin the season, remember.

That's what is being weighed in the warehouse. Do you hold out hope that a healthier roster and a rotation that could be better suddenly converge for a second-half surge?

Or do you assume the second half is as half-empty as the first, cut your losses and look to improve the rotation for the future?

If that's the path, the Orioles must be willing to make some exceptionally difficult decisions. The first is what to do with 25-year-old third baseman Manny Machado, one of the most dynamic young players in the game.

Machado is a free agent after the 2018 season. He'll land a huge contract and, though it's impossible now to predict what Machado and Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper might command on the open market, the $400 million figure has been tossed around in relation to each. And that would be well beyond Davis' franchise-record, $161 million deal signed in 2016.

The sense is the Orioles wouldn't -- maybe couldn't -- go $400 million for one player. So, if they can't re-sign Machado, perhaps the smartest thing to do is trade him now, while a team would have him under control for a season-and-a-third.

He didn't have his best first half, hitting .230, well below his .278 career average. But he still had 18 homers, 47 RBIs and played spectacular defense. He could land the Orioles several high-ceiling prospects, something they desperately need, especially from a pitching standpoint. The only current Orioles pitching prospect that is above Double-A is lefty Chris Lee, who has had major trouble at Triple-A Norfolk.

Machado is obviously the linchpin for a rebuilding effort, but the Orioles certainly could get an impressive return by dealing relievers Zach Britton and Brad Brach this month. Plenty of contenders are looking for relief help, and Britton and Brach, both All-Stars in 2016, can stabilize a bullpen. Like Machado, they are free agents after the 2018 season.

The last of the Orioles' four top trade chips is second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who was the club's lone All-Star in 2017. He is under team control through 2019.

Besides that quartet, the Orioles don't have any players who would absolutely bring back blue-chip prospects in a deal. All the other possibilities are either unproven (Bundy, Gausman, outfielder/first baseman Trey Mancini), or have contracts or contract stipulations (Davis, designated hitter/outfielder Mark Trumbo, O'Day, center fielder Adam Jones) that would limit their values and/or suitors in the trade market.

The Orioles possibly could deal away some of their lesser players -- Seth Smith, Welington Castillo, Hyun Soo Kim -- but the return would be minimal.

There really isn't an obvious answer to this dilemma for the Orioles. Do they hope against evidence that they are more like the 22-10 team that started the first half than the 20-36 one that ended it and go out and get rotation help, as inconsequential as it may end up being?

Do they close their eyes, let the trade deadline pass and hope that doing nothing was the right call? Or do they swallow hard and trade current stars for potential future ones?

Everyone seems to have a different opinion. And no one is 100 percent sure which plan is right.

That is what we can safely call -- drama aside -- a crossroads. 

Issue 235: July 2017