Peter Schmuck: Much-improved Orioles are not just a midsummer night's dream, but... - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Orioles

Peter Schmuck: Much-improved Orioles are not just a midsummer night’s dream, but…

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan USA Today Sports

The Orioles will open the non-mathematical second half of this intriguing baseball season with a chance to show their fans how new and improved they really are.

The next week at Camden Yards will feature a three-game series against the runaway Yankees and four games against the stubbornly persistent Tampa Bay Rays. The next month will feature 20 of 30 games inside the toughest division in baseball, with a midseason trade deadline mixed in just to keep all of us guessing about just what this team will look like the rest of the way.

Of course, this is already a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty situation. The past couple of months have proven that the Orioles have a lot of emerging talent at both the major and minor league levels and some attractive young players who are delivering high-level big league entertainment. They also have a long-term plan that might interrupt this current lovefest in a couple of weeks.

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Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has been ruthless in his effort to transform the organization into a player development powerhouse and he isn’t likely to get all touchy-feely at the trade deadline if he can get value for popular veteran Trey Mancini, closer Jorge López and a couple of other key players.

For all the excitement the O’s have generated recently with their solid pitching, highlight-reel defense and never-say-die late-inning heroics, it will probably take another long winning streak (or some behind-the-scenes meddling by chairman and CEO John Angelos) to convince Elias to hold fast and let fans continue to dream of a wild-card playoff berth.

That’s highly unlikely with the stiff competition that is lined up all the way to September and beyond, so maybe we should get used to the notion that this is going to be fun as long as it lasts and the future really is as bright as it looks.

In the meantime, here are some midseason observations on the state of the team at this pivotal moment in its organizational evolution:

THE ORIOLES WILL NEVER BE THE YANKEES … OR EVEN THE NATIONALS

Here’s the good news: O’s fans will never have to worry about one of their star players turning down a $440 million contract offer, as Nationals superstar and Home Run Derby champion Juan Soto did the other day.

That doesn’t mean the O’s will never win an AL East title, but when they split the Baltimore/Washington market with the Nats, the impact on their local revenue stream pretty much assured they would always have to count their pennies. The ill-fated Chris Davis contract hammered home the point that the best-case scenario for the club is to become a better-funded version of the Rays or the Oakland A’s.

There will come times when they will need to spend some real money to get over the top in a division-title or wild-card race, and it remains to be seen whether they will be willing to do that. For now, being somewhat competitive on a modest budget is the right way to proceed.

ELIAS HAS SUCCEEDED IN BUILDING HIS “ELITE TALENT PIPELINE”

Whether he deals away a handful of key players at the deadline or not, Elias has packed the system with a ton of promising youngsters and just made quite a haul during this year’s amateur draft. It’s hard to imagine him not making some deals to add even more minor league prospects, which might disappoint some fans, but he has been quite honest about his “global” aspirations.

That said, he also has rightly thrown some credit to predecessor Dan Duquette, who was responsible for acquiring, drafting and signing several of the players who have come into their own in 2021 and ’22.

THE ANGELOS FAMILY LAWSUIT WILL HAVE LITTLE EFFECT ON ANYTHING

The emotional fissure that has developed between John and Louis Angelos and the lawsuit that it has spawned gave rise to renewed speculation that the Orioles will soon be sold or move out of town. In reality, it’s just a garden-variety estate battle played large that will have little effect on the operation of the team or the future of it in Baltimore.

That doesn’t mean the Orioles won’t be sold after the passing of family patriarch Peter Angelos. They probably will be, but they aren’t going to move out of Baltimore and leave Oriole Park vacant. Major League Baseball will not allow that.

THE OFFENSE HAS BEEN RESILIENT, BUT COULD BE BETTER

The Orioles are a .500 team in baseball’s most competitive division because Elias built a bullpen out of whole cloth and has gotten amazing production from a starting rotation that lost ace John Means and top rotation prospect Grayson Rodriguez early on to major injuries. They also have played terrific defense and shown the ability to come alive at the plate in the middle and late innings.

It’s hard to criticize anything that the Orioles have done over the past few months, but the inability of the players at the top of the lineup to press opposing starting pitchers in the first two innings has forced them to come from behind at a rate that is impressive but unsustainable.

Recent example: Saturday’s extra-inning victory over the Rays began with Cedric Mullins grounding out on the first pitch of the game, Trey Mancini popping out on the third and struggling Rays starter Ryan Yarbrough walking off the mound after throwing just seven pitches. Yarbrough had given up 20 earned runs in his previous 14 innings but went on to pitch into the sixth and might have gotten his first victory of the year if pinch-hitter Adley Rutschman had not hit a game-tying homer in the eighth inning.

The young O’s are aggressive at the plate and that’s a good thing, but being over-aggressive in the first inning or two can enable a good starting pitcher to squeeze an extra inning out of an outing in a close game.

Mullins and Austin Hays have been very productive this season in all phases of the game, but both have expanded their strike zones recently, especially in their early at-bats.

ADLEY RUTSCHMAN WAS THE RIGHT CHOICE

Though rookie sensation Adley Rutschman has yet to put up big cumulative numbers at the plate, he clearly has played a catalytic role in the team’s three-month surge. The batting average isn’t there yet, but he has delivered a number of clutch hits like the one that sent Saturday’s game into overtime and has been as good as advertised behind the plate from the day he arrived.

The Orioles chose him with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft over infielder Bobby Witt Jr., who is having a terrific rookie season. Both players deserved to be at the top of that year’s draft list, but Rutschman was the right choice for the O’s, who used their second pick in that draft to take high school shortstop Gunnar Henderson.

Henderson, who turned 21 three weeks ago, is playing well at Triple-A Norfolk and has a chance to crack the major league lineup next season.

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