Apparently, times flies whether you're having fun or not, because we've almost reached the point in the 2011 season when the Orioles have to start making decisions about 2012.
Sure, it's a little early for that, but when president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail acknowledged on Monday that he will soon initiate negotiations to extend the contract of shortstop J.J. Hardy, it was a signal that the Orioles are starting to fill in some more blanks in the organization's blueprint for the not-to-distant future.
Hardy seems like a no-brainer for a couple of reasons. He is a very good defensive shortstop with some pop in his bat who's just 28, which would make him a very valuable commodity even if he wasn't the ultimate Buck Showalter kind of guy. Who better to bridge the time warp between now and the arrival of projected super prospect Manny Machado?
There are some physical issues to consider, but Hardy still seems to be a solid fit for the next couple of seasons if the club can sign him to a reasonable extension. The rest of the picture is not so clear.
The Orioles signed Vladimir Guerrero to inject some power in the middle of the lineup, but the July 31 deadline for making trades without waivers was always part of the equation. The rationale: If Guerrero delivered and the rest of the team floundered again, he figured to be trade bait to accumulate more of what MacPhail likes to call "inventory."
The same went for Derrek Lee, whose flashy glove continues to be a huge asset to the young Orioles pitching staff, while his bat has yet to make the kind of noise that MacPhail and Showalter hoped would pump up the volume of this quiet offensive team.
There still is more than a month before trade talks get really serious, but neither Guerrero nor Lee has done enough to create real value for the club, so it seems likely that both of them will be here for the remainder of the season. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the front office was probably hoping to have more flexibility going forward.
Guerrero and Lee were classic one-year plug-ins. Hardy and third baseman Mark Reynolds were acquired with the hope that they would be around longer and buy the club time to grow some position players. Turns out, Hardy will probably be the most tradable of the lot for the same reasons that the Orioles should not deal him at the deadline unless he refuses to sign an extension.
There are other Orioles players who will be attractive to contending teams. Pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, despite his deceptively bad won-loss record, would draw a lot of interest if he were made available, and there are people in the Orioles organization who wouldn't mind finding out just what he might bring in return. That possibility, however, became a lot less likely when Brian Matusz looked so lost on Sunday.
The Orioles could also shop reliever Koji Uehara, who has looked very good in a setup role this season, but it's hard to imagine a full-scale fire sale unless the team totally collapses over the next four or five weeks.
That isn't out of the question. The schedule softens a bit after the Orioles get out of Toronto, but the last 17 games before the All-Star break are against AL division leaders (Boston and Texas) or NL teams (Cincinnati, St. Louis and Atlanta) that are right in the thick of their respective division races.
MacPhail has to walk a very fine line here, because the desire to further broaden the organization's talent base may collide with the need to show the fans — and potential free agent targets — that the club continues to move in the right direction. If there is any chance to finish close to or above .500, the Orioles need to do that, even if it means keeping some veteran players around who would otherwise be worth more in conserved payroll and minor league talent.
Certainly, no one views that as a lofty goal, but it has to be more of a consideration than it was when MacPhail unloaded Miguel Tejada last season or Aubrey Huff the year before. The Orioles have hovered just under .500 in spite of a wide variety of setbacks over the first 2 ½ months of the season, so the front office should not discount the possibility that Showalter will suddenly get them headed north the way he did when he arrived last August.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on "The Week in Review" on Friday's at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and WBAL.com.