Picking up the pieces for the Orioles’ second half

July 13, 2011 | Luke Jones

Despite rumors to the contrary and the wishes of many, the Orioles will play the remaining 74 games of the 2011 season.

Over the Orioles’ current stretch of losing 21 of their last 27 games that’s left them 18 games behind first-place Boston, I’ve constantly thought back to the spring of 2009. Former manager Dave Trembley made proclamations of the cavalry being on its way, labeling Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Jake Arrieta as “three legitimate top-of-the-rotation talents.” He gushed over the development of wunderkind catching prospect Matt Wieters, coming off a historically-great minor league season in 2008.

The Orioles were coming off their first last-place finish since 1988, but with young pitching and the club’s best prospect since Ben McDonald, fans finally had hope that didn’t center around aging veterans, middle-of-the-road starters, or reclamation projects. The fortunes of 2011 or 2012 looked more promising than at any other point since the Orioles’ last winning season in 1997.

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Questions remained, but there was real hope.

Light at the end of the tunnel.

Over two years later, Matusz and Tillman find themselves languishing in the minor leagues — along with Zach Britton as a result of a service-time decision — and Arrieta tries to fight off elbow inflammation while posting a mediocre 4.90 earned run average. The group has more closely resembled the Mets’ failed “Generation K” of the mid-1990s than the Atlanta Braves’ staff of the early 1990s.

Matusz, Tillman, Arrieta, Britton, and Brad Bergesen have pitched to a combined 5.05 ERA in 340 2/3 major league innings this season.

Wieters was just named to his first All-Star Game and has displayed excellent defense, but anyone in the organization would be lying if they weren’t disappointed with the catcher’s slow development offensively. Though far from a draft bust, the Orioles didn’t give Wieters a $6 million signing bonus in 2007 for great defense and slightly above-average offense.

Instead of getting better after a 34-23 finish under Buck Showalter in 2010, the Orioles entered the All-Star break with the second-worst record they’ve had over the last 14 seasons. Only last year’s team — on a historically-terrible pace over the season’s first four months — was worse.

As many have pointed out, morale is at an all-time low, which is no simple feat for a fan base seemingly hitting rock bottom as often as a basketball dribbled against a hardwood floor.

Dreams of a .500 season and avoiding a 14th straight losing season are all but dead, but the Orioles have issues to resolve and questions to answer in the second half. Much will hinge on the ability of the young pitching to get up off the mat and start fighting back to salvage the remains of this season — and beyond.

None of these will turn around a lost season, but here’s my list of what needs to happen in the second half:

1. Decide what to do with Hardy

Shortstop J.J. Hardy has clearly been one of the bright spots in a very deflating season. Emerging as the leadoff hitter in the absence of Brian Roberts, Hardy (13 home runs, .836 OPS) has provided the Orioles with their best all-around play at shortstop since the early stages of Miguel Tejada’s first tenure in Baltimore.

However, Hardy is set to become a free agent after the season and represents the Orioles’ most valuable trade chip. Despite his stated desire to remain in Baltimore, it’s hard to envision the 28-year-old signing a reasonable two- or three-year contract when he can simply wait until the off-season when several teams will be after his services.

On the other hand, the oft-injured Hardy may find it too big a risk to play out the rest of the season and has cooled considerably in July (6-for-40) after a blistering June. Hardy’s injury history has to weigh on the mind of Andy MacPhail or any other general manager looking to lock up the shortstop long-term.

One factor that shouldn’t be overemphasized is 19-year-old prospect Manny Machado. As the Orioles have painfully learned with the collapse of their young pitching, you can’t look too far ahead in lieu of helpful short-term options. The youngest player in the Carolina League at Single-A Frederick, Machado should have two more years of development before becoming a realistic option in Baltimore.

If the Orioles are unable to extend Hardy prior to the July 31 deadline, they could simply elect to have him play out the season and take the risk that he might leave as a free agent, which would then bring draft compensation. With that in mind, if Hardy’s interest in signing an extension is lukewarm, the club shouldn’t be willing to just give him away for spare parts at the deadline, either.

2. Clear out the dead weight

Despite a brilliant career, Vladimir Guerrero’s time as a middle-of-the-order hitter has come to an end. Showing little power since the first half of last season with Texas, Guerrero ranks seventh (.700) in OPS among Baltimore regulars and has been little more than a singles hitter despite manning the cleanup spot all season.

Showalter said he would consider dropping Guerrero in the order following the All-Star break — Mark Reynolds would be my choice in the cleanup spot — but the club must look to move Guerrero as soon as possible in a dignified way. Considering his pedigree and how admired he is in the clubhouse, it’s a delicate situation for the organization to handle.

Paying a large portion of his remaining salary may allow the Orioles to fetch a long reliever for the future Hall of Famer, but a 36-year-old who can’t run, play the field, or hit for power isn’t exactly an attractive option for even the most desperate contenders.

Assuming he returns from the disabled list, Luke Scott would become the regular designated hitter after Guerrero’s departure, completely freeing up left field and protecting Scott’s injured shoulder.

The same argument about Guerrero can be made for Derrek Lee (.666 OPS), but the veteran has at least provided good defense at first base. If Lee is able to be moved — in a similar Aug. 31 waiver deadline deal — the Orioles could elect to give Scott extended time at first or give a starting audition to Brandon Snyder to see if he can stick as a bench player in the future.

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