- Associated Press - Thursday, July 15, 2010

BALTIMORE | A wretched first half has taken much of the mystery out of the 2010 season for the Baltimore Orioles.

The possibility of securing a winning record for the first time in 13 years ended with a 2-16 start, and manager Dave Trembley was fired on June 4 after Baltimore slipped to 24 games below .500.

Although the Orioles took a four-game winning streak into the All-Star break and were a less-than-awful 14-20 under interim manager Juan Samuel, they still own the worst record in the majors (29-59) and are a whopping 25 games behind first-place New York in the AL East.

“We really haven’t played as well as we should have or as well as we can,” said catcher Matt Wieters, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list Thursday with a strained right hamstring.

With last place a virtual certainty for third year in a row, the only suspense left for Baltimore is:

— Can president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail convince Buck Showalter, or anyone else, to take over as manager of the club?

— Will the Orioles lose 100 games for only the third time since moving to Baltimore in 1954?

— Will MacPhail deal veterans such as Ty Wigginton and Miguel Tejada before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline?

These weren’t the kind of questions the Orioles expected when they launched the second phase of a rebuilding project that began with MacPhail’s arrival in June 2007. After last season, when Baltimore went 64-98, MacPhail said it was time for the team to be judged not by the individual success of its young stars but by wins and losses.

Sadly, there have been many more defeats than victories.

“It’s a giant step backward,” MacPhail conceded.

The Orioles will open the second half Friday at home against Toronto with Samuel at the helm. As a first-time manager in the big leagues, Samuel has done a credible job in stressing fundamentals and maintaining a positive attitude in the clubhouse. Under different circumstances, his work might be rewarded with the removal of the interim tag.

But Baltimore’s previous two managers, Sam Perlozzo and Trembley, traveled that path and could not produce a winner. Which is why MacPhail has interviewed Showalter and former Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge, among others, during a search that began immediately after Trembley’s dismissal.

Showalter appears to be the front-runner. Now an analyst for ESPN, Showalter has a career 882-833 record with the Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers. MacPhail has spoken to Showalter several times, but will explore all possibilities before making a final decision.

“The timetable of the managerial thing is going to be open ended. It’s the first time going through an in-season process for me,” MacPhail said. “I think once you get comfortable with a decision you make it. But you have to get there and you have to weigh all the options and look at all the information.”

This is an important choice for MacPhail, whose work during the recent offseason helped put the Orioles in their current situation. Free agent pickup Garrett Atkins hit only one homer and was released last month; free agent closer Mike Gonzalez spent much of the first half on the disabled list after a horrid start; and starter Kevin Millwood, obtained in a deal with Texas, was 2-8 before being placed on the DL on July 6.

Baltimore’s demise can also be attributed to the failure of its young players to take the next step. Wieters is batting .245 in his second season; second-year outfielder Nolan Reimold is now struggling in the minor leagues; Brad Bergesen went from 7-5 with a 3.43 ERA as a rookie in 2009 to 3-6 with a 6.40 ERA; and rookie Brian Matusz is 3-9.

Competing in a division with the Yankees, Boston and Tampa Bay, well, that’s just not going to cut it.

Former Oriole Cal Ripken Jr., now a member of the Hall of Fame, wonders if the increased expectations were justified or too much to handle.

“It just seems like they got ahead of themselves a little bit in saying, ‘We’re going to expect wins.’ Then, the way the young team reacted to the losses — and the way they lost — in the beginning made it a little more complicated,” Ripken said. “I think everybody needs to take a breath and step back.”

That seems to be the plan.

“You can’t worry about yesterday. You can’t worry about the first half,” Wieters said.

The Orioles might soon be performing for a new manager and with a depleted roster if MacPhail duplicates his 2009 veterans-for-prospects dealing spree at the trade deadline.

“What we’re trying to do, man, is just continue to play hard,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “We haven’t had the greatest season so far. That’s evident. But the thing about it is, we’ve played our tails off.”