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Manny Machado key to Orioles' ascent

Manny Machado's defense at shortstop and third base has helped the Orioles finish the first half in first place. Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

BALTIMORE -- The All-Star break is here and believe it or not, following a 4-2 win against the Los Angeles Angels, the Baltimore Orioles are still in first place. Last time they led the division at the break, in 2014, they went on to win the pennant. While it remains to be seen how 2016 will play out, it’s safe to say that nobody expected them to be where they are now. Anyone who says differently (including me) is lying. Either that or they wear tight pants, a baseball hat, and lots of black and orange to work every day. Speaking of people on Peter Angelos' payroll, it’s time to dish out some hardware. Present some prizes. Bestow some baubles. Give some gold. You get the point. Without further ado, I humbly submit for your consideration the Orioles midseason awards:

MVP: Manny Machado. With all due respect to current MLB home run leader Mark Trumbo, who has contributed to the most essential part of the O’s first-half success (their big bats), the MVP cannot go to him. Because when you have the best player in baseball -- and for my money, that’s Manny Machado -- it’s kind of an unwritten rule that he has to be the MVP of his own team. Unless he’s in a major slump, which Machado is not and has not been all year. Quite the opposite, in fact: Since going 4-for-4 way back on April 10, Machado’s average hasn’t dipped below .300 all season. April’s player of the month in the American League, Machado's .957 OPS leads the team and ranks fifth in the AL, and his 35 multi-hit games are tied for third. In other words, he’s really good at the whole hitting-the-ball thing. But what makes him the Birds’ no-brainer MVP? The whole catching-the-ball thing. After the O's lost J.J. Hardy for six weeks to a broken foot, Machado slid over to shortstop and, despite having spent the past four years playing third base almost exclusively, he essentially said, “Ain’t no big thang.” Just how valuable has Machado been in the field? Despite splitting time between third (39 games) and short (44 games), he ranks in the top five in the AL in runs saved at both positions. That’s just crazy.

Cy Young: Zad Brachton. Don’t recognize the name? That’s what I’m calling the two-headed bullpen monster that is Zach Britton and Brad Brach. I know it seems like a cop-out, but that’s how dominant these two have been. Both are All-Stars. Both have a 1.3 fWAR. Both have sub-1.00 ERAs. Their K rates are identical (10.6 per nine innings). Brach’s WHIP is 0.81, Britton’s is 0.82. Heck, they’re practically twins (except for the fact that one is a lefty and one is a righty). But the biggest similarity of all: Without either of them, the Orioles -- whose bullpen has done some world-class heavy lifting these first three months -- would be up the creek without a paddle. Or a boat. Or water. That’s how important Zad Brachton has been.

Cy Old: Ubaldo Jimenez. To be clear, this isn’t about being an ancient hurler, but rather an ineffective one. As in, the opposite of Cy Young. OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s focus on the fact that Jimenez has been far and away Baltimore’s worst pitcher this year. His 7.38 ERA is the highest in the majors by nearly a full run (min. 80 innings). He has gone from starter to reliever and back to starter again because the pitching-poor Orioles don’t have any other options. Unless a four-man rotation is a viable option. While that wouldn’t be a popular decision among O’s starters, judging by the repeated boos at Camden Yards during Jimenez’ last start, the good people of Charm City would be just fine with it.

Rookie of the Half-Year: Hyun Soo Kim. In early April, when The Joey Rickard Hype Machine was on the verge of exploding from overuse and Kim was on the verge of being sent to the minors, the odds of him winning the O’s ROHY were roughly equivalent to the odds of Iceland winning a big international soccer match over England (wait, what?). Three months later, the 28-year-old outfielder has become a fixture in the two-hole for Buck Showalter’s heavy-hitting club. Among players with at least 170 plate appearances, the lefty-swinger, who started getting semi-regular playing time in late May, ranks fifth in the AL in average (.329) and sixth in on-base percentage (.410). On a free-swinging Birds squad, Kim’s plate discipline has been a revelation -- he has a chance to become the first O’s regular since Rafael Palmeiro in 2004 to post more walks than strikeouts.

Comeback Player of the Half-Year: Matt Wieters. With apologies to Chris Tillman, who has rebounded from a blech 2015 to cement his status as the ace of the O’s staff (take if for what it’s worth), this one is all Wieters. Last November, he surprised everyone by taking Baltimore’s one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer instead of signing a big-money, long-term contract elsewhere. Maybe that’s because there was no big-money, long-term contract elsewhere. After all, the switch-hitting catcher was coming off a partial season in which he returned from Tommy John surgery and looked like a shell of himself, both with the lumber and the leather. But here we are at the break, and Wieters has been rock solid on both sides of the ball. Not to mention, he’s an All-Star. While none of his numbers jump off the page, that qualifying offer -- which at the time felt to Orioles fans like a very expensive pair of handcuffs -- now seems like one of the team’s best moves last offseason.