When the Orioles begin the second half of the 2009 season Friday night at the Chicago White Sox's U.S. Cellular Field, they will carry a sense of optimism that usually doesn't accompany a last-place club.
Sure, the Orioles went 40-48 in the first half, three games behind the fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays and 14 behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. Their 14-27 record away from Camden Yards is the worst road mark in the American League.
However, beyond the underwhelming numbers and far too many inefficient starts and base-running gaffes, there have been signs that the rebuilding plan of president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail has accelerated.
Left fielder Nolan Reimold has teamed with Nick Markakis and All-Star Adam Jones to give the Orioles one of the most dynamic young outfields in baseball. Brad Bergesen, the Orioles' most consistent starting pitcher, has joined Reimold as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate.
Matt Wieters, the most celebrated first-year Oriole, is improving by the day, and could soon be catching top prospect Chris Tillman, who is dominating Triple-A at 21 years old. With a couple of attractive trade chips, MacPhail is in position to add to the Orioles' young nucleus before the trade deadline later this month.
"We're excited about where things are headed and the way we've been playing," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "I think for the first time, our second half looks more promising than the first. I think we have some good things going."
Here's a look at five story lines to watch during the Orioles' second half of the season:
Will manager Dave Trembley be back?
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun last week, MacPhail said he wouldn't decide until late in the season whether to pick up the 2010 team option on manager Dave Trembley's contract, "probably later in the season than it's been in the past."
After taking over for the fired Sam Perlozzo, Trembley had the "interim" tag removed Aug. 22, 2007. The following season, the team extended his contract Sept. 5. MacPhail's pronouncement that he'll wait until even later this year could easily be taken as a sign that the organization isn't convinced that Trembley is the long-term answer.
However, MacPhail, who has been complimentary of his manager even as fan criticism of Trembley has intensified, said it's more of a timing issue, pointing out how poorly the club has played after Trembley's status had been determined the past two seasons.
Either way, Trembley's fate may depend on how well the Orioles fare down the stretch.
Can they avoid a second-half swoon?
A post-All-Star-break collapse has been one of the staples of the Orioles' 11 straight losing seasons. Since 2000, they've had a winning second half just once.
The pattern of late-season collapses is one of the things that MacPhail is working hardest to change. To that end, he has tried to add pitching depth to fight the normal attrition that teams contend with as the season goes on.
In past seasons, the Orioles have been forced to acquire journeymen such as Victor Santos and Victor Zambrano just to have enough inventory to make late-season starts. This year, Tillman and Jake Arrieta, two of the team's top pitching prospects, are waiting in the wings.
Infield prospects Brandon Snyder, Justin Turner and Blake Davis are more enticing options than former Orioles Bernie Castro and Brandon Fahey.
"You need people to be able to come in and fill in that are major league-capable," Roberts said. "I think we have that now."
Will the trade winds blow?
A little more than two weeks before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Orioles are one of only a handful of teams entrenched as sellers, and they have a few pieces that have already intrigued playoff contenders.
Closer George Sherrill has been the most popular target. However, the Orioles, who still have Sherrill under control for two more seasons, will move him only if they get what they perceive as "closer" - not situational left-hander - value in return. The Florida Marlins still look like the best fit, as they need bullpen help and have a number of corner infield prospects who intrigue the Orioles.
Danys Baez is probably the most likely Oriole to be moved, though the club won't get much in return unless it's willing to eat a good portion of his contract. Aubrey Huff and Melvin Mora are also available, but Mora has a blanket no-trade clause and may want a team to pick up his 2010 option to approve a trade. In Huff's case, the compensatory draft picks the Orioles would likely get if he left via free agency after the season may be worth more to the club than what it could get for him in a trade.
"I would hope that we'd do something [before the deadline], I really would. But as I've said before, we're not the farm system for contending teams," MacPhail said.
Where will the rotation lead?