They entered the All-Star break last year with an interim manager, 27 games out of first place in the American League East and with a 29-59 record that had them on pace for a franchise-worst 109 losses.
Yet the circumstances surrounding the current Orioles appear every bit as dire, and perhaps even more deflating. They have lost seven straight games and 12 of 13. Their starting rotation can't deliver quality or even serviceable starts, their offense can't produce clutch hits and their defense can't consistently turn makeable plays into outs.
At 36-52, the 2011 Orioles' biggest accomplishment is being ahead of last year's record-setting pace for futility. And after finishing last season 34-23 under new manager Buck Showalter, overhauling the coaching staff, adding several accomplished veterans and giving their young nucleus one more year to mature, that's not what this season was supposed to be about.
"I guess I wouldn't classify it as a step back, but we certainly haven't built off the momentum that we started the year with," starter Jeremy Guthrie said. "We had it for a couple of weeks of the season, but we haven't been able to sustain it. With new faces and new components of this team, we have the parts and pieces to do it. We just haven't shown that we can do it consistently yet. Hopefully, that's in our future."
As the Orioles start the second half and a 10-game homestand against the Cleveland Indians on Thursday, the hope for a winning season — the organization's first since 1997 — is all but gone. Instead, the focus has shifted to a familiar place in the Andy MacPhail era: the future.
"It is what it is. I don't think anybody is trying to portray it as the record being anything different than it is," said MacPhail, in his fourth full season as the Orioles' president of baseball operations. "The people understand that. They'll choose to look at it however they choose to look at it. People are awfully sophisticated today. By and large, they know what they are looking at on the field, and they have access to so much information to help evaluate where you are. I think it's pretty clear that we're making progress, we're better. It's just not coming as quickly as I'd like."
Said Showalter: "I know the reality of what's going on. I got it. We've got good people. We just have to put it together. You play every day, and that's a great exposure for strengths and weaknesses."
Showalter and the MacPhail-led front office face a crucial final 21/2 months of the season. They have to decide what to do with impressive shortstop and free-agent-to-be J.J. Hardy and explore the market for several underperforming veterans before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. They have to upgrade a beleaguered pitching staff that has a 6.14 ERA over the past 27 games and rarely has given the Orioles a chance to win in recent weeks. They have to pore over the minor league affiliates and determine whether the Orioles have any prospects at the upper levels of an unbalanced system who can be counted on to occupy key roles in 2012.
And the decisions will have to be made as several Orioles executives, including MacPhail and director of amateur scouting Joe Jordan, enter the final months of their contracts. Orioles owner Peter Angelos told The Baltimore Sun in March that MacPhail is "not going anywhere," but the team's struggles, along with MacPhail's wishes, could certainly factor in that decision.
"Let's just see how we do and how we feel at the end of the year," said MacPhail, who has never said definitively that he wants to return next year in the same capacity. "Obviously, it's a two-party decision. We're going to have to agree. I've always said and will continue to say, 'Let's just see how we do and how we feel at the end of the season.'"
Angelos speaks regularly with MacPhail, but he has also been meeting about once per homestand with Showalter, a departure from the owner's relationships with previous managers. Dave Trembley, Juan Samuel, Sam Perlozzo and Lee Mazzilli didn't communicate with the owner much or, in some cases, at all. MacPhail said he has encouraged the arrangement.
"He's free to talk to whoever he wants. He owns the team," MacPhail said. "You have to remember, as I told Peter, Buck is used to George Steinbrenner, Jerry Colangelo and Tom Hicks. He's probably not going to understand if there is not communication. Plus, why shouldn't Peter have access to what's going on at the ground level during games? Do you think that Bill DeWitt of the Cardinals doesn't talk to [manager Tony La Russa]? That's idiotic to suggest for it to be any other way. There's something wrong if the owner doesn't talk to the manager."