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BALTIMORE — If you needed more evidence, the Orioles’ 11-3 win on Saturday should have done the trick.
The Orioles are better than the New York Yankees. They might be better even if — and that’s a big if — Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Curtis Granderson somehow manage to get healthy and regain their old form in the second half of the season. Until then, the Yankees lineup continues to languish to score even three or four runs on a given night while their capable but unspectacular pitching struggles to pick up enough slack.
Trailing the division-leading Boston Red Sox by just 2 1/2 games entering play on Sunday, the Orioles are one of the best clubs in the league — even with their pitching flaws. They can improve further depending on what lies ahead at the trade deadline with the potential to augment what’s already a formidable roster.
But the 25-man roster will begin undergoing an internal makeover much sooner as second baseman Brian Roberts, outfielder Nolan Reimold, and — most importantly — starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen will potentially rejoin the Orioles at different points over the coming week. It looks promising on paper, but the Orioles are certainly keeping their fingers crossed that all three will stay healthy, particularly with Roberts and Reimold, a pair of players stricken by countless injuries in recent years.
The intense doubts over the ability of Roberts and Reimold to contribute are unavoidable and certainly understandable.
“It’s tough from a human being standpoint for them,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I’ll tell you we’re excited about getting Brian and Nolan and Chen back potentially. But by talking about it a whole lot, you jinx it.”
Even if the two position players and Chen manage to come back from the disabled list successfully, the Orioles are first faced with several decisions as it pertains to the players currently on the roster. Pitcher Jair Jurrjens would figure to be optioned back to Triple-A Norfolk after pitching 2 1/3 shutout innings in relief Saturday night to make room for Roberts, who is expected to be activated Sunday for his first action since suffering a severe right hamstring injury on April 4 that eventually required surgery in early May.
Making room for Reimold and Chen becomes trickier as Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette must choose from a projected pool of pitchers Kevin Gausman and Zach Britton and infielders Danny Valencia and Ryan Flaherty to determine who goes back to Norfolk. All of them have minor-league options but bring value in different ways.
Struggling reliever Pedro Strop, who allowed an earned run in the ninth inning Saturday, is the wild-card candidate who could go at any time, but it’s well-documented the 28-year-old is out of options and would very likely be picked up by another club thinking it can fix him. However, the simple reality that reliable reliever Darren O’Day began warming up with Strop on the mound and the Orioles holding an eight-run lead spoke volumes about the lack of faith in the maligned pitcher.
Showalter and Duquette have tried to remain as patient as possible with his 2012 performance lingering in their minds, but hiding an ineffective arm in the bullpen is very difficult when he doesn’t even provide the ability to pitch multiple innings in a blowout situation like Kevin Gregg did last year before the organization ultimately parted ways with him late in the season.
Regardless of the direction they ultimately go, the Orioles must weigh the positives and negatives of shaking up a roster that’s already on pace to win 90 games.
“It’s a good problem if we can get these guys back,” Showalter said. “We tried to set up the organization with a lot of the moves where we had the potential to keep some flexibility there.”
Chen made his first rehab start for Double-A Bowie on Saturday, pitching five innings and allowing four earned runs and five hits while striking out five and walking two. The Taiwanese lefty told reporters after the outing that he continues to feel no effects of the oblique injury that’s sidelined him since mid-May. Showalter said earlier in the day that Chen was tentatively scheduled to pitch on Thursday in Chicago or Friday in New York if he was deemed ready after Saturday’s start.
It’s always concerning when a starting pitcher misses an extended period of time in the middle of the season, but Chen hasn’t experienced any setbacks after taking ample time to allow the injury to heal before he began throwing again. Expecting Chen to pick up right where he left off might be asking too much, but there’s no reason to think he won’t be successful after some time to get his legs back under him at the big-league level.
Chen is arguably the Orioles’ most consistent starter and would fit quite nicely with the strong work turned in by Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez. He’s not the top-of-the-rotation starter the Orioles covet, but Chen regaining his pre-injury form would be a major boost to a rotation that’s been better of late but still lacks enough consistency to make you feel comfortable in the second half.
His return would leave the Orioles with an interesting decision over whether to keep Britton or Gausman as their fifth starter. The former pitched five shutout innings Saturday before melting down in the sixth inning for the second straight outing. Gausman turned in 4 1/3 stellar innings of shutout ball in relief to earn the win Friday night and only lost his job in the rotation a couple weeks ago due to short-term bullpen needs.
One of the two is all but certain to go, but figuring out what to do to activate Reimold will be the trickiest task.
Showalter has already said that Roberts will become the starting second baseman upon returning, meaning Flaherty could be expendable with the thought that you’d like him playing regularly in Norfolk. But do you really want to send down Flaherty’s red-hot bat that’s seen his average elevate from .133 upon his return from the minors on May 29 all the way to .215 only a month later?
Flaherty hit his sixth homer of the season Saturday and currently sports an eight-game hitting streak with multi-hit efforts in six of those contests. He’s 14-for-29 with four homers and nine RBIs over that stretch and has played excellent defense at second base all season.
Fellow second baseman Alexi Casilla would need to give his consent to be optioned to the minors, meaning he isn’t a realistic candidate to go with Roberts returning. On top of that, Showalter prefers having Casilla on the bench as a late-inning pinch runner who can steal bases.
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