The Orioles arrived at the All-Star break looking every bit like the strong playoff team they hope to become in October, but – as manager Brandon Hyde would be the first to tell you – it only gets tougher from here.
Certainly had to wonder a week or so ago, when they had lost six of seven games and seemed to be halfway to getting swept in a four-game series against the Yankees, but they reconfirmed their resilience by winning their last five games in impressive fashion. If they hadn’t, this might be a different conversation, but the road ahead still features intrigue at just about every turn.
So, this is a logical time to look ahead at what faces executive vice-president/general manager Mike Elias, Hyde and this exciting young team:
The remaining schedule
If it seems like the Orioles are always in the middle of some nasty stretch of games against a bunch of plus-.500 teams, I’m going to put you at ease with an expression that belonged to eloquent former O’s manager Buck Showalter: You’re not being paranoid … just alert.
The Orioles always have a tough schedule because of their membership in the well-heeled American League East and the recent switch to a more balanced schedule hasn’t really changed that. Even with fewer head-to-head matchups in the division, the steady drumbeat of contending teams continues unabated.
They closed out the non-mathematical first half with an impressive three-game sweep at the expense of the then-division-leading Minnesota Twins after surviving that four-game set at Yankee Stadium. Before that, they caught the Cincinnati Reds at their apex and played Tampa Bay when the first-place Rays still had the best record in the sport.
It’s not going to get much better when they return to action on Friday night, The Miami Marlins are no longer anybody’s pushover and then the Orioles get the Dodgers, Rays again, Phillies, Yankees and Blue Jays. They do not see another losing team until the struggling Mets visit Camden Yards on August 4th and, let’s not forget, the Mets were supposed to be a very good team this season and may well be playing like one by the time they get here.
The Orioles have already proven they can compete with the best teams in either league, but they’re going to have to keep proving it week after week to stay in position for a deep postseason run.
The happy dilemma
Now for the good news, which isn’t really news to anyone who has been watching Elias’s “elite talent pipeline” reach full bloom.
The Orioles have something going for them that a lot of their fellow contenders don’t. The terrific young players who are establishing themselves in the big league lineup are just a fraction of the organization’s upper-level minor league depth. Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser joined Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson over the past two weeks and made an immediate impact – providing a noticeable offensive spark to help their teammates pull out of their recent hitting slump.
That doesn’t mean that there will be a steady stream of new players on the roster, but it does mean that – along with clutch fill-in performances from Ryan O’Hearn and Aaron Hicks after Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle were lost for extended periods –the Orioles are well-insulated against any more major personnel hits.
The only problem facing Hyde at this point is finding enough playing time for everyone now that those two players have returned while a few other youngsters are in the wings. There are a couple dozen major league teams that would love to have that problem.
The one trouble spot
The Orioles have one of the best late-inning relief duos in the game, but middle relief continues to be the one area that has to keep the manager and Elias awake at night. The young starters are developing very well, but there remains five- or six-out gaps between the rotation and dominant right-handers Yenner Cano and Félix Bautista.
Mike Baumann, Bryan Baker and Danny Coulombe have been very effective at times, but it’s still a roll of the dice every time Hyde heads to the mound in the sixth or seventh inning. Lingering injuries to Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens have dimmed hope that they can fill that void, so it appears that Elias will have to use some of his developmental capital to acquire another dependable bullpen arm.
The trade deadline
Elias undoubtedly is scouring the market already, but it’s a tough call. The club paid a heavy price when they traded top pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez to the Red Sox for top-flight reliever Andrew Miller in 2014, a move that paid off with a division title in the short run but left the club to watch Rodriguez live up to his potential and torture the Orioles over the last decade.
The Orioles would like to avoid a repeat of that scenario but that might be the only way to get a quality pitcher in a trading environment made more difficult by the additional wild-card teams that entered the picture last year.
In a perfect world, the Orioles would also acquire a front-line starter to shore up the rotation, but that definitely would put a significant dent in the team’s minor league pitching depth.
Can they get there from here?
Obviously, at this point in the season, you are what your record is and the Orioles have the third-best record in all of baseball, so the Orioles seem very likely to reach the playoffs. That alone is saying a great deal when you consider that the sports book at Maryland Live (casino) had them as a 50-1 longshot to win the division and 120-1 to win the World Series a couple of weeks into the season.
This isn’t a mirage. The Orioles are not just a good team. They are a very good team. They’re also a wildly entertaining team. But there is a long way to go and – as previously mentioned – a long list of very good teams awaiting them during the dog days of August and down the stretch.
If it’s any consolation, the same can be said for the other four teams in the American League East, three of which are looking up at the O’s.