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Continued success for Dwight Smith Jr. could leave Orioles with a decision to make

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The outfielder has been a find in his first season in Baltimore. But is he part of the Orioles’ future, or someone else’s?

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a good story, one of the best of the year for the Baltimore Orioles. And through a quarter of the season, it hasn’t gone away.

In less than two months, Dwight Smith Jr. has gone from no-name to a featured bat in a major league lineup, and if there’s another shoe to drop with the first-year Oriole, it hasn’t come down yet. Smith’s home run Sunday against the Angels was his eighth, and gave him the team lead. He’s batting .286, and also leads the team with 27 RBI.

Being the leader in those categories on a team on pace for another 100-loss season may seem a dubious accomplishment, but in Smith’s case, it isn’t. He is on pace to bat .286 with 32 home runs, 109 RBI and an .844 OPS. He’s projected to add 36 doubles. He’s getting those hits when the Orioles need them, too, sporting a .438 average with runners in scoring position.

Of course, these are just projections. But let’s get a little crazy and say those projections pan out, or at least come close. Say the Orioles have a real find on their hands, and have seen their flier on a player with two career home runs before this year translate into an outfielder who hits for both average and power.

The question becomes: Have they stumbled upon a piece of the future?

Or someone who can help them get pieces of the future?

Start with the case for keeping him. If Smith remains something close to the player he’s been so far, then the Orioles have an All-Star caliber player who won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2022 and won’t be a free agent until 2025.

That’s team control, and those are two glorious words for a rebuilding team.

Smith’s background would also create some support for this side of the argument. If Smith were a low pick or some major league journeyman, it would be harder to fight off the feeling that the water was about to meet its level with him.

Those signs, however, aren’t there. Smith clearly has the raw talent to be doing this, evidenced by his high draft spot (first round, 53rd overall), and his admittedly small experience in the majors has shown a resemblance to this year. In 47 career games over two years with Toronto, Smith batted .293 with an .833 OPS. He looks more like a player finally getting a shot than one who has consistently gotten them and failed with them.

The plan is for the Orioles to become competitive while Smith would still be under team control, and his bat would be a welcome presence for an up-and-coming bunch in Baltimore.

And yet, the reasons are just as strong for the argument that Smith’s success could turn him into a trade chip more than a franchise player. For one, he’s 26, not 23, and if the Orioles’ rebuild takes until 2022 before they’re playing meaningful games, Smith will be 29 going on 30 before he plays a hopefully considerable role on a winning team.

And while Smith doesn’t have the red flags of failed major league call-ups or obscure draft status, it did take him five years in the minors before he finally broke into the big leagues, and seven years of bouncing around before he finally began to reap results at the highest level. Smith’s stock got so low that, in March, the Blue Jays designated him for assignment, giving the Orioles the chance to find him for cheap.

Really cheap, in fact. Basically nothing. That’s a great plan to find someone to contribute in the short term, but does that make a longer-term investment too much of a gamble?

Of course, the biggest reason for dealing Smith if this production keeps up could come from the outside. If Smith is still churning out a mid-.800s OPS, a true contender could get enamored with the potential of landing a bat that isn’t a rental, but a big picture addition as well.

Think along the lines of a considerably scaled-down version of what the team would have been looking at had it shopped Manny Machado in 2017. General manager Mike Elias could be looking at an opportunity to add two or three prospects in exchange for a player no one considered before the season, and that could be a chance too tempting to pass up.

This is all a thought experiment, of course, and it might not end up mattering, particularly if Smith starts to more closely resemble the player the Blue Jays figured they were giving up on back in March.

What can’t be argued, though, is that Smith gives an Orioles team needing all the help it can get a boost with each home run he swats or multi-hit game he posts. Nothing bad comes out of Smith continuing to play like an All-Star; the Orioles would just have either a player for the future or someone who can help them keep building.

It’s a win-win scenario if Smith keeps this up. It would just become a question of which path the Orioles choose to take.