For O's, to Buy Or to Sell Is The Question

Brian Roberts, right, is still a candidate to be traded if the Orioles decide to be sellers rather than buyers.
Brian Roberts, right, is still a candidate to be traded if the Orioles decide to be sellers rather than buyers. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
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By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

With the sun burning bright above Fort Lauderdale Stadium, Baltimore Orioles President Andy MacPhail stood before a group of season ticket holders in the spring and warned them that the price of long-term success would likely be short-term pain.

The Orioles were coming out of an offseason in which they had traded two veteran stars and were working on trading another. So it seemed certain they would be woefully out of contention by the July 31 trade deadline and in a position to use it to further their long-term rebuilding plan.

Today, as the so-called second half of the season begins -- actually, 69 games remain -- the Orioles are just three games under .500, and their approach to the trade deadline is no longer a foregone conclusion.

While Baltimore entered the all-star break having lost seven of its past eight games, MacPhail still refuses to say whether the Orioles intend to be buyers or sellers in the period leading up to the trade deadline.

"Over time, those decisions become self-evident," MacPhail said.

He did say last weekend that while the team has held preliminary talks with other organizations about potential deals, none has progressed past the early stages.

Much will depend on the Orioles' play coming out of the break. Their recent skid knocked them into last place in the American League East, 10 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. The Orioles begin an 11-game homestand tonight against the Detroit Tigers.

"I think everybody understands that we are in this for the long run," said second baseman Brian Roberts, who has braced for the possibility of a trade. "We want to give ourselves a chance to win right now. But I think if you were to ask the organization from the top, they'd say we're focused on the future still, so they're going to do what's right for the future above right this second."

After a strong start to the season, the team's young pitching staff -- perhaps the biggest reason for earlier overachieving -- has regressed. Once relied upon to push the Orioles through their early-season offensive woes, only two starting pitchers -- Jeremy Guthrie and Daniel Cabrera -- have regularly shown the ability to pitch into the seventh inning and beyond.

Still, even during the recent downturn, the Orioles have continued their trademark resilience under Manager Dave Trembley. This season, the Orioles have already managed to climb back over .500 after being derailed by losing streaks. And the offense has been resurgent, boosting the team through its pitching woes.

"I know there's a lot of rumblings and a lot of talk about what we should or shouldn't do," said Orioles designated hitter Aubrey Huff, a candidate to depart if the Orioles decide to sell. "But this team has made it hard on those kinds of decisions."

First baseman Kevin Millar took it a step further, saying the Orioles should consider adding pieces because of how they have competed in the difficult AL East.

"We've won more games and competed every single night, more than people thought we would do," Millar said. "I think we're in a very tough division. It's no secret that you could be at .500 in this division and you're easily 10 games out. . . . The bottom line is we've got to keep growing as a unit, and that's what you look forward to after these three days off."

Roberts, who leads the American League in triples, is still a candidate to be traded, as he was during the offseason and spring training, when a rumored deal with the Chicago Cubs never came to fruition. Despite the distractions, Roberts has been a stalwart as a leadoff man and at second base.

Huff and relief pitcher George Sherrill also have attracted interest. Huff seems to have rediscovered his form from 2003, when he was as one of the league's top left-handed hitters. Sherrill, who came in the offseason trade that sent starter Erik Bedard to Seattle, has emerged as a viable closer who could also be useful as a setup man or left-handed specialist. Millar, with his postseason experience, might also be a candidate.

But even those regarded as the most likely to be changing uniforms have hinted that perhaps change might not be needed, especially after the Orioles exceeded expectations in the first half.

"We like the building blocks we have going forward with some young pieces that have come in and gotten a chance to play a lot, and our young arms," Roberts said after Sunday's game at Boston. "We're excited about the future. But we also want to be excited about now."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company