BALTIMORE, JULY 15 -- The manager still talks about "getting back to .500 and going from there." Cal Ripken Sr. emphasized again today that he hadn't given up on 1987 and that he has seen signs the pitching finally might be coming around.

The general manager won't come right out and say 1987 is a lost cause, but he hints at it over and over and says it's important to look toward the future.

The future is one reason Bill Ripken is playing second base and Ken Gerhart and Larry Sheets are in the outfield almost every day. The future is why the Orioles did give up on veteran second baseman Rick Burleson but won't give up on rookie starter Eric Bell (6-7, 5.53 ERA).

"You don't want to lose sight of what you're trying to accomplish," General Manager Hank Peters said. "But you still make a move because it's going to help the club."

That's why the Orioles' upcoming roster shuffle could be their most interesting, one that will involve pitching and not necessarily a youth movement. The Orioles begin the second half of their season Thursday night in Kansas City, and within a couple weeks, their starting rotation could be a familiar one.

Veteran Mike Flanagan (0-5, 6.53) will rejoin the Orioles Saturday, two months to the day he was placed on the disabled list. When he left, there was a good chance he wouldn't be back because the Orioles wanted to throw young Jeff Ballard into the rotation and figured he might be polished and poised enough to stay.

He wasn't, and since Flanagan left, nine pitchers have had starts. With the exception of Mike Boddicker and Dave Schmidt, their performances have ranged from decent to terrible, which has the Orioles eagerly awaiting Flanagan's start at Royals Stadium Saturday.

"His stock has risen a little, hasn't it?" a teammate asked today.

He returns to the Orioles after making three rehabilitation starts at Class AAA Rochester, allowing 12 hits and four earned runs in 12 innings. He walked only three and struck out 10, and a scout said he was "very good. He has even started getting his curveball over, which is his key."

He'll join Boddicker, Schmidt, Mike Griffin and Bell in the starting rotation, which leaves rookie John Habyan (1-3, 6.28) as the odd man out. Peters won't say Habyan is the man being sent back to Rochester, but he does say, "He's had a lot of chances up here, hasn't he?" He adds, "But we've got four or five guys who could be sent out. A lot of them haven't pitched well."

Then in the next couple of weeks, it appears likely that Ken Dixon will rejoin the Orioles. He had been tentatively penciled in for a Monday start in Chicago, but that appears to have changed.

His numbers at Rochester are good -- 3-0 with a 2.67 ERA -- but the Orioles privately say he's still making too many bad pitches. In four starts, he has pitched 27 innings and allowed 22 hits. He has 22 strikeouts, but he has also given up two homers.

"We sent him down there to accomplish some things, and he hasn't accomplished them yet," Peters said.

The toughest decision, though, will involve veteran Scott McGregor. He accepted the demotion to Rochester with the understanding he'd be brought back in about 15 days. He has made two starts there, giving up three runs in five innings, then three runs in six innings, each time against the Yankees' Columbus affiliate, and probably will have at least one more before a decision is made.

If it weren't for the $2.5 million remaining on his contract, the decision to release him would be an easy one. But the money almost requires the Orioles to keep him on their roster and hope he somehow comes out of a three-year slump.

But the Orioles have changed. Even with center fielder Fred Lynn, 35, and third baseman Ray Knight, 34, the every-day lineup averages only 29 years per man.

"I think we've found out again here lately that all we need is a little pitching," Ripken said. "They just have to keep us in the game, and if we get the chance, we'll score some runs. I still think we can get back to .500 and then we'll go from there. I think the pitchers can watch a guy like Mike Griffin {1-3, 3.76} go out and throw strikes and see what can happen. He has pitched very well. We still need to get {Tom} Niedenfuer straightened out, and if we do that, the bullpen won't look too bad."