The Orioles enter the second half in a position they haven’t found themselves in for years.

They had four All-Stars at this week’s Midsummer Classic, a sign to the world that they are finally relevant after years of living in the league’s basement. The team is 54-35, only two games behind the AL East-leading Rays.

The Orioles are in playoff position with less than three weeks until the Aug. 1 trade deadline. They are preparing to be buyers as opposed to selling off their top assets.

The Baltimore Banner staff breaks down what they need and who should be off limits.

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What surprised you most from the first half?

Sports Audience Engagement Editor Paul Mancano: Back in spring training, when general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias was asked what made the Orioles a playoff contender, he pointed to the team’s depth. He’s been proven right.

Sure, most clubs look deep in February and March, when their rosters are mostly healthy and projectable. But Elias and manager Brandon Hyde have used every spot on the 40-man and 26-man rosters with deftness. You can criticize the front office for not adding enough big league free agents in the offseason, but you can’t deny the contributions of first baseman Ryan O’Hearn, signed to a minor league deal. You can express frustration with Elias’ patience with promoting top prospects, but you must appreciate the resurgence of outfielder Aaron Hicks, picked up in late May.

The Orioles are incredibly deep, and if they hold on to prospects such as Heston Kjerstad and Joey Ortiz, they could have reinforcements coming up from Triple-A Norfolk late in the year.

Columnist Jon Meoli: I’m surprised broadly at this team winning over 60% of its games, but I’m most surprised by the fact that they’ve added Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser in the last month and have both now pegged for regular roles as they push for October. Westburg’s arrival was overdue, but Cowser seems to be a bit ahead of schedule. The reason they are here and playing is that they represent the best options at their spots for a team that can’t really afford not to have its most talented players helping it win every night. It’s been a long road to get to that point, and I’m glad it’s now the case.

Orioles beat reporter Danielle Allentuck: I’ve been so impressed with the way the young players have handled the spotlight. Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg and now Colton Cowser have performed like veterans despite none being more than two years into his major league career. I expected the Orioles to hit a snag in the first half, as most young teams do, but this team hasn’t. Every time they’ve been down, one of those four has picked them up. They have confidence and charisma, and they aren’t shying away from being the faces of the franchise.

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Orioles beat reporter Andy Kostka: Given the fact right-hander Yennier Cano allowed nine runs in the 4 1/3 innings he pitched last year for Baltimore after arriving as part of the trade that sent right-hander Jorge López to the Minnesota Twins, there were few expectations around the reliever. He wasn’t immediately in the Orioles’ plans, either, having started the season with Norfolk.

But on Tuesday he pitched in his first All-Star Game. He has solidified Baltimore’s eighth inning role with a 1.48 ERA in 42 2/3 innings. He allows just .891 walks and hits per inning. The rise for Cano has been sudden and is the biggest surprise surrounding the Orioles.

What do you think the team’s biggest weakness or need is?

Mancano: When I try to envision the Orioles playing in a wild-card series in October, I keep coming back to the question: Who starts Game 1? Although Kyle Gibson has proven to be a fine offseason addition, poor performances from Cole Irvin, Grayson Rodriguez and Dean Kremer have threatened to derail the O’s promising season.

Relying on the (delayed) return of left-hander John Means and a bounce back from Rodriguez isn’t enough. Elias needs to make a significant upgrade to the rotation. A lefty would be nice.

Meoli: If I were in the Orioles front office, I’d be checking high and low to help solidify the middle innings of the bullpen. Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens’ injury issues persisting to this point in the season have removed a lot of options from Brandon Hyde’s disposal, and they’ve won a lot of games without them. I think the built-in days off in October and the fact they’ll probably have a starter or two in the bullpen by then could mitigate this issue in the playoffs. They have to make sure they get there in the best state possible, though.

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Allentuck: One word: pitching. I think they need bullpen and rotation help, but I would put finding a middle-inning reliever as the top priority. Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista have the eighth and ninth locked down, but it gets a little murkier prior to that. They can’t count on Dillon Tate and Mychal Givens to fill in the gaps, because both are injured with no timeline.

Kostka: Even with Cano and right-hander Félix Bautista as formidable late-inning options, the middle relief corps leaves something to be desired. Baltimore’s bullpen as a whole holds a 3.63 ERA, the sixth-best mark in baseball. But isolating relievers to just the fifth, sixth and seventh innings combined tells a different story. In those innings, the Orioles’ relief ERA is 4.42, the 12th lowest in the majors. Over the last month, Baltimore’s starting pitchers and lineup provided cover for a bullpen that was bound to allow a few runs. The middle innings are where the Orioles can still improve.

Who’s on your no-trade list?

Mancano: With the best and deepest farm system in baseball, the Orioles wouldn’t just be able to sustain some thinning of their minor league rosters; they could honestly use it. But the Darell Hernaiz-Cole Irvin deal should serve as a cautionary tale. Elias can’t sell prospects for 80 cents on the dollar simply because he has a glut of them.

Former No. 1 pick Jackson Holliday may be the only prospect I would unequivocally refuse to move. I’d also need to receive more than a rental to deal Kjerstad, Jordan Westburg or Colton Cowser. Just about everyone else is on the table for me.

Meoli: Colton Cowser’s arrival in the majors might have forced an update to this breakdown had it happened before I wrote it, but I still think Holliday and Grayson Rodriguez are the only truly untouchable players. I would hold out for a significant major league return if Kjerstad, Coby Mayo or Westburg was going to be moved, and I think the kind of rental deals I expect the Orioles to make wouldn’t include any of those players. But Holliday and Rodriguez are fully off limits to me.

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Allentuck: Look, at some point the Orioles are going to have to give up a prized prospect in exchange for someone who can help them win at that moment. It’s looking like it’s that time. I think they are deep enough that they can afford to move a position player and still be fine long term. Obviously, Jackson Holliday isn’t going anywhere. Grayson Rodriguez is a guy I would not be willing to move. Sure, he was inconsistent in his first stint in the major leagues — he gave up 37 earned runs in 45 1/3 innings — but he showed flashes of the player he can be. And, with their lack of starting pitching depth, there’ll likely be a time when they need him to be a key part of the team.

Kostka: Jackson Holliday will not be traded. Colton Cowser and Jordan Westburg, both contributing in the majors now, shouldn’t be traded, either. But beyond those obvious choices, infield prospect Coby Mayo could be the most enticing prospect to keep in the system — of course, that’s why he might be the most difficult. At just 21, the fourth-round pick in 2020 was recently promoted to Norfolk after hitting .307 with a 1.026 OPS. He plays a strong third base but could be shifted to first base to get his bat in the lineup at the next level. Should the Orioles trade for more than a rental, Mayo’s plate production might be too hard to pass up for another organization, but he could bring that to Baltimore.

What trade do you think the Orioles should make?

Mancano: St. Louis’ pitching staff has been abominable, with the exception of left-hander Jordan Montgomery. Through 18 starts, the 30-year-old has posted a 3.23 ERA, which would be second on the Orioles behind Tyler Wells’ 3.18. Montgomery is on an expiring contract, meaning the O’s might not have to surrender a haul for his services.

The Cardinals sent outfielder Harrison Bader to the Yankees to acquire Montgomery at last year’s deadline, but they’re likely looking for prospects in return this summer. Perhaps a package of Ortiz, outfielder Kyle Stowers and a recent international signee would get the deal done.

Meoli: I can see the Orioles acquiring a starter and a reliever from a team that’s out of contention in a joint deal this month. I like the idea of getting Lucas Giolito or Lance Lynn from the White Sox, along with someone like Reynaldo Lopez out of their bullpen. I’m not sure what that would take. Trading from the second tier of their infield prospects, such as Connor Norby or Cesar Prieto, and adding a mid-minors pitcher with attractive stats could be a starting point. I just believe the rental market overall could be fruitful for the Orioles, and they can probably upgrade this team without making a meaningful dent in the top of their prospect list.

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Allentuck: It’d be easy to get a rental arm for the rest of the season, but, given the state of their pitching prospects, I would get a guy who can be around for a little longer. The Angels are not out of the playoff picture yet, but they are playing without Mike Trout for the foreseeable future and they could be ready to sell off their assets by the time Aug. 1 rolls around. Carlos Estévez, who just played in his first All-Star Game, would be a good pickup for the Orioles. His two-year, $13.5 million deal would give the Orioles control until the end of the 2024 season. He has a 1.80 ERA with a 1.286 WHIP, both significantly below his career bests. He is serving as their closer but can fill any bullpen role for the Orioles.

Kostka: The Chicago White Sox are in fourth place in the American League Central, and they’re in position to sell players. The expectation is the White Sox will keep their core together, but one piece that could be on the move is right-handed reliever Kendall Graveman. The value for the Orioles is that Graveman is under contract through 2024; while they’d have to offer a bigger prospect haul, Graveman and his 2.93 ERA could contribute longer than a rental would. He could become Baltimore’s seventh-inning option, joining Cano and Bautista in the back end of the bullpen. But making almost any deal will cost multiple prospects, and securing an arm that’s still under team control might mean parting ways with bigger names.

danielle.allentuck@thebaltimorebanner.com

Danielle Allentuck covers the Orioles for The Baltimore Banner. She previously reported on the Rockies for the Denver Gazette and general sports assignments for The New York Times as part of its fellowship program. A Maryland native, Danielle grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Ithaca College. 

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