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Plenty of upside remains for surging Orioles coming out of All-Star break

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After an All-Star break featuring Adley Rutschman in the Home Run Derby and four players in the Midsummer Classic, the surging Orioles begin their most anticipated second half in seven years on Friday night. 

Yes, the 2016 Orioles were in first place at the break and ultimately qualified for the postseason, but it’s no secret that club’s competitive window was already closing by the time Ubaldo Jimenez surrendered the game-losing blast as Zack Britton watched from the bullpen in the AL wild card game in Toronto. In contrast, the current Orioles are just getting started with a 102-70 record since July 3 of last season and a loaded farm system continuing to supply talent to the majors. 

Tied in the loss column with AL-leading Tampa Bay and sporting the best winning percentage of any Baltimore club at the All-Star break since 1997 — the best Orioles team of the last 40 years, mind you — expectations have certainly changed for the better. Even a 36-37 mark the rest of the way would give the Orioles their first 90-win season since 2014, so anything short of making it to October would have to be considered a major disappointment now. 

When you already have as many — or more — victories as those awful 2018, 2019, and 2021 clubs over an entire season, life is good. 

And it wasn’t as though the first half went perfectly either. 

While receiving surprising contributions from the likes of All-Star setup man Yennier Cano, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn, lefty reliever Danny Coulombe, and ex-Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks, the Orioles endured their share of disappointments as well.

Projected to be the top late-inning arms to hand leads over to closer Felix Bautista for the ninth inning, injured relievers Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens have combined to pitch four innings in 2023 with no guarantee of either contributing in the second half. Top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez was demoted in late May with a 7.35 ERA while the organization’s second-ranked pitching prospect, lefty DL Hall, has spent much more time building strength in Sarasota than pitching for Baltimore. Trade acquisition Cole Irvin has been better since returning to the majors last month, but the former Oakland lefty hasn’t brought the innings and higher floor for the starting rotation that many anticipated. And Opening Day starting infielders Ryan Mountcastle and Jorge Mateo own sub-.270 on-base percentages, leaving their roles in question moving forward. 

Already a season-best 19 games above .500 in the middle of July, this club still has untapped potential for the second half. 

Infielder Jordan Westburg and outfielder Colton Cowser only arrived in the majors over the last two weeks, meaning the competition to be part of the everyday lineup has only increased among roster incumbents. The talented Rodriguez is primed to return sooner than later, and veteran lefty John Means still has a decent chance to be able to contribute down the final stretch in his return from last year’s Tommy John surgery. Outfield prospect Heston Kjerstad has raked since being promoted to Triple-A Norfolk in early June and could also factor for a promotion if the need arises.

And that’s not even considering what the trade deadline could bring with general manager Mike Elias in position to be a buyer with plenty of resources at his disposal. While the Orioles shouldn’t compromise their long-term future, the opportunity in front of them is too enticing not to want to improve the current roster if the right deal presents itself for a veteran starting pitcher, a high-leverage reliever, or both. 

So, even if the Orioles endure a couple injuries or some of those first-half surprises prove unable to sustain their success, Brandon Hyde’s club remains in outstanding shape — even with playing a challenging remaining schedule and competing in the heavyweight AL East — to qualify for the postseason. The Orioles have simply played too well for too long now to doubt them anymore. Their current five-game winning streak on the heels of losing six of seven was the perfect example.

As plenty of pundits noted this week, it’s a heck of a time to be an Orioles fan after recent years of misery. Such national attention is going to continue, only with the stakes being much higher than playing in the All-Star Game. 

Yes, the best is yet to come over the next three months and beyond. 

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