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The Orioles “buy or sell?” dilemma will be answered if they keep playing poorly

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Trade deadline season approaches. One writer currently calls the Orioles “misguided buyers.” If they keep losing, though, their path will be clear.

St Louis Cardinals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Baseball’s trade deadline is more than a month away. A whole lot can happen in a month’s worth of baseball that can change the landscape in which decisions are being made. Still, as the calendar moves into late June, it’s time for teams like the Orioles to step back and honestly assess who they are and where they’re going.

You don’t need me to tell you that the Orioles are not on a trajectory to anywhere good. Although it was so long ago now that it seems like it happened in a different year, this team was, at one point, 22-10. How can you give up on a team that started out 22-10? One way you can do that is if you remember that they’re also a team that’s since gone 12-25.

The Orioles have not contented themselves with garden variety of failure. They have set their sights on failing in a way that no American League team has done before. The mission has been accomplished. Right now, after having allowed 5+ runs in the last 16 games, the Orioles have set an AL record for the most such consecutive games.

Don’t rule out the Orioles hitting the MLB record of 20 straight games allowing 5+ runs, a feat last accomplished by the Philadelphia Athletics when Calvin Coolidge was the President of the United States. When you are failing in such a sustained way that you are invoking comparisons to when Silent Cal lived in the White House, there is something that’s very wrong and it won’t be getting better in the short term.

No team in MLB has a higher ERA than the Orioles current 5.06 number. No team in the AL has a worse starting rotation than the O’s and their 5.54 ERA. Pitchers they’ve counted on to be good, like Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman, have been increasingly awful. The two pitchers who were actually pitching well, Dylan Bundy and Wade Miley, have struggled since June began.

What’s more, the failure of the starting rotation has exposed the soft part of the bullpen, namely the interchangeable Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle riders, all of whom seem to be determined to demonstrate repeatedly why they were available to be had for a player to be named later or cash, even though they all still have minor league options remaining.

Other teams didn’t think they would regret losing these guys. So far, they were right.

These are fatal flaws that can’t be fixed by a trade or two. And yet, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Orioles “have told at least one rival club unequivocally - much to that club’s surprise - that they plan to be buyers.” What? Rosenthal goes on to label the Orioles as MISGUIDED BUYERS, which sounds about right to me.

It’s hard right now to square the Orioles current position in the standings with the idea that they absolutely can’t be buyers and maybe should be sellers instead. They remain just one game out of a wild card spot, somehow, even though they’re tied for last place in the American League East and now sporting a below .500 record.

That leaves the Orioles as something resembling contenders, for now, even though they’ve been blown out regularly over the last month.

Darren O’Day returning to the bullpen within a week and Zach Britton being back not too far after that, if all goes well, is not going to be enough to fix that problem. The rotation is still the rotation, and what’s more, still the same guys who have led it to its current AL-worst state.

This is not a fun position to be in as an Orioles fan. Looming not far over the horizon is the post-2018 free agent apocalypse, where essential players like Britton and Manny Machado will hit the market. Contracts will also be up for Adam Jones, Brad Brach, and even the guys guiding the team: Manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette. If the Orioles fall out of the race this year, we may be watching the end of an era. That sucks.

At one point as the Orioles started their collapse, they memorably lost seven consecutive one run games. “That’s just bad luck,” we could tell ourselves. Some of it probably was. There was reason to believe things could be better.

Yet as the Orioles have gone on to give up 10+ runs in five of their past ten games, as they have posted an 11-23 record in road games, this does not feel like bad luck. It does not feel like something that has an easy fix.

In recent good Orioles seasons, there was a lot of angst over people judging them based on their run differential. Those teams, especially the 2012 Orioles, were “supposed” to have a worse record than they did, that they exceeded by winning so many one run games.

Here in 2017, something different is happening. Though the Orioles are “only” one game below .500 and just a game out of a wild card spot, their run differential of -57 - second-worst in the American League - suggests that they “should” be a 29-40 baseball team. That’s certainly what they’ve played like over the last month and a half.

Rosenthal’s assessment isn’t wrong. The idea of this team giving up one of its few possibly promising prospects to chase some mid-tier rotation or bullpen pieces is not an agreeable one. The team won’t be going anywhere unless the players they were counting on start playing better. Nothing they add from the outside or even the minors can change that.

It’s probably not a bad thing that the trade deadline is more than a month away. Starting right now, 13 of the next 19 Orioles games leading up to the All-Star break will be played on the road. I have a sinking feeling that by the time the break rolls around, not even the Orioles front office will be able to continue under the belief that they should be buyers and could remain in the race this season.