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The Orioles don’t need to improve in the second half to make the playoffs. But they do if they want more than that. | ANALYSIS

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Entering the season, the Orioles not making the playoffs wouldn’t have been a surprise. In fact, the overwhelming consensus was they wouldn’t.

Now, if their 2023 campaign were to end with the 162nd game, it would be because of a late-season collapse and be considered a disappointment. That outcome doesn’t seem likely, though, as the Orioles are scorching hot, winners of seven straight and owners of the third-best record in the major leagues.

At this point, missing the postseason would be a greater shock for only a few other teams in Major League Baseball. According to FanGraphs, the Orioles’ 81.3% chance to make the playoffs is the fourth-best in the majors — far better than their 10.4% chance on opening day. The National League-leading Atlanta Braves, American League-leading Tampa Bay Rays and NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers are the only clubs with better playoff odds than the Orioles.

“This was the time that if we go on a streak, it can do a lot for the team’s confidence and put you in such a really good spot for the playoffs,” starting pitcher Kyle Gibson said after Saturday’s comeback win over the Marlins. “It really becomes yours to lose. I think that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re playing really good baseball at the right time.”

The superb start — 21 games above .500 before August for the first time since 1997 — has given Baltimore (56-35) breathing room. That cushion means the Orioles don’t need to make any second-half improvements to make the playoffs. In fact, they can play .500 ball (or even a bit worse) the rest of the way and still get there.

However, if they want to do more than just make the playoffs — win a division title, a playoff series or even a pennant — improvement is needed over the season’s final two and a half months. Upgrades can come in many forms, from more prospect promotions to the return of injured players to acquisitions at the trade deadline. No matter the avenue, any enhancement could put Baltimore one step closer to achieving goals past simply making the playoffs.

The most obvious area of need is in the bullpen. The back end is solidified with closer Félix Bautista and setup man Yennier Cano, but another reliable arm (or two) could take the relief corps to the next level.

It’s possible those reinforcements are in house, as the Orioles have six pitchers on the injured list, including five relievers. Right-hander Mychal Givens (shoulder inflammation) was one of the club’s biggest offseason purchases, but he’s only pitched four ineffective innings this year. Left-hander Cionel Pérez (forearm soreness) and right-hander Dillon Tate (elbow flexor strain) were two of Baltimore’s best relievers in 2022, but the former has been largely ineffective in 2023 while the latter hasn’t pitched in the majors and has struggled mightily during two different minor league rehabilitation stints. Starter John Means (Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery) is also progressing through his recovery, but the earliest he could return is in late August, and whether that would be in a starting or relief role is unknown.

Relying on Pérez to return to form, on Givens and Tate to get healthy or on Means to do both might be a fraught path, and acquiring a reliever won’t be as expensive as it would to buy a starting pitcher. Manager Brandon Hyde said after Saturday’s win, the club’s, that right-hander Mike Baumann has helped stabilize the middle relief, which has been shaky at times this year.

“We’re looking for guys to get outs in those middle innings right now,” Hyde said. “That’s something we did really well last year, something we can improve on this second half is kind of those middle innings once a starter leaves.”

The starting rotation and lineup are in similar spots. They’ve both been great for spurts and bad for short stretches, but overall good enough. The trade deadline could offer options, perhaps for a top-line starting pitcher, but the most likely bolstering would come as a return to form for current players or prospect promotions. Starters Gibson and Dean Kremer have been solid enough to win 19 games combined, but they both have ERAs north of 4.50. Ryan Mountcastle and Jorge Mateo, two of the Orioles’ best hitters early in the season, have been slumping, with the former recently returning from the injured list. Stellar second halves from those four players would give the rotation and the lineup a boost.

With the promotions of Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser, the Orioles don’t have much space or options for prospect call-ups, with outfielder-first baseman Heston Kjerstad and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez as the most likely candidates. Kjerstad could add another left-handed bat to an already lefty-heavy lineup, while Rodriguez’s recent dominance at Triple-A offers an intriguing midseason addition after he struggled in his first big league stint.

While Hyde said he believes his club can improve on “a little bit of everything,” he said consistent pitching — both in the rotation and the bullpen — is what makes the Orioles go. With an offense that’s displayed both big-inning and comeback potential, having a pitching staff keep the game close is vital.

“When we pitch well, we normally win, or we give ourselves a chance to win,” Hyde said. “I think that pitching on a nightly basis, pitching and defense, in August and September really comes into play. The good teams have more depth, it’s post-trade deadline, the playoff teams, some teams, have loaded up quite a bit. If you can pitch and play defense, you’re going to stay in games and you’re going to win games you’re supposed to win. That’s going to be key for us.

“A lot of it is going to come down to our pitching.”

Hyde often recalls his time on the Chicago Cubs’ coaching staff, including the 2016 World Series championship season. That year, the Cubs were 53-35 at the All-Star break, but they got even better as the season progressed — thanks, in part, to trade deadline additions — and went 50-23 in the second half en route to a championship. However, the likelihood the 2023 Orioles have the second-half or postseason success the 2016 Cubs did is low, and no team should have expectations that high.

Throughout the season, it’s important to not lose sight of what the expectations were for the Orioles going into the year, when sportsbooks and projection systems alike had them winning fewer than 80 games, in order to appreciate how far the club has come in such a short period of time. However, that doesn’t mean the expectations can’t or shouldn’t change as the Orioles continue to prove themselves as a team capable of more than just a wild-card berth.

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