Sputtering Orioles again at crossroads as midseason nears

June 09, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

It is a traditionalist's nightmare, the nine-game Orioles homestand that began last night against the Colorado Rockies, and that's not the half of it.

The three teams that will visit Camden Yards didn't exist in their present form the last time the Orioles were in a World Series, and none of them is even in the American League. But through the commingled miracles of expansion, relocation and marketing gimmickry, the Rockies, Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks will visit Baltimore at what could be a watershed juncture in the recent history of the Orioles franchise.

OK, so maybe I'm a little prone to overstatement at times, but the Orioles opened the three-game series against the resurgent Rockies with a lot riding on the outcome of this homestand and the trip that follows it. The Orioles need to do well against substantial interleague competition (and the Nats) or risk falling far enough under .500 to justify a dramatic change in organizational direction at midseason.

Nobody wants to talk about that yet, not after the club climbed to .500 last week after a six-game winning streak. Nobody with an ounce of job security is going to concede another season with 101 games left. And yet the time for making important long-term decisions is not far away.

The midseason trading deadline may still be seven weeks off (July 31), but trade discussions between contending clubs that want to upgrade for the stretch run and non-contending clubs that want to get a jump on 2008 will start to heat up the next several weeks.

The Orioles figure to stay the course as long as they remain within reasonable reach of the wild-card lead. What other choice do they have after nine straight losing seasons and the steady drop in attendance that has come with them? If the current June swoon continues, however, midseason trade speculation undoubtedly will bubble up again around shortstop Miguel Tejada and several other veterans.

Tejada has 2 1/2 years left on the six-year, $72 million contract he signed before the 2004 season. Club officials said during spring training that their offseason rebuilding efforts - and several contract extensions - were geared toward getting the Orioles into position to make a championship run by the final year of his deal (2009), but enough has changed over the past two months to make a midseason roster shuffle a distinct possibility.

The reconfigured bullpen that cost so much and was supposed to end all the late-inning frustration has instead become a major problem for a team that also lost more than half its projected rotation to injury by early May. The concurrent lack of offensive production has come as no great surprise, but the pitching meltdown seems to have dashed any real hope that the Orioles would be able to do more with less this season.

Barring a sudden midseason surge, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette are going to be right back where they were last July, when several teams made offers for Tejada. This time, however, they may be able to make the case to owner Peter Angelos that the club will be in a better position to make good on the Tejada timetable without Tejada.

He clearly would be more valuable to a contending team in a pennant race than he will be to the Orioles in another meaningless second half, and there are plenty of indicators that he will never again be the player who drove in 150 runs in 2004.

There also could be interest in veteran starting pitcher Steve Trachsel, who has been surprisingly effective since he was signed as a last-minute spring replacement for Kris Benson but isn't likely to be around when the Orioles finally are in a position to compete.

The Orioles were hoping to be the surprise team in the American League this year. They were hoping to be a buyer instead of a seller at midseason. That's not entirely out of the question, but it's going to take quite a turnaround to put them in position to consider themselves a legitimate wild-card contender in 2007.

The next few weeks might be a traditionalist's nightmare, but this stretch of interleague games might also be the Orioles' last best hope for a successful season. One way or the other, it could determine which direction the team goes from here.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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