What Worries Me

My immediate reaction when I heard about the Jeremy Guthrie trade yesterday was a blend of shock, anger, and confusion. The deal deprived the Orioles of one of my favorites and the return left me wanting in a bad way. But it is important to let these things percolate and look at them with a more rational mind, and I found that as the shock wore off, I had less and less to complain about with the trade.

Yes, Jason Hammel is not as good a pitcher as Jeremy Guthrie and Matt Lindstrom's walk rates have been known to have a certain Kevin Gregg-ness to them. But Guthrie is 33 years old with a 4.19 career ERA and is a free agent after this season. I can easily believe the reports out of the front office that this winter the demand just wasn't there. Roy Oswalt is still out of work, and it took a longer time than expected for Edwin Jackson to settle for just one year. The pitching market isn't tremendous, and in that light this trade seems relatively fair.

So what's missing from this package that would have made it more palatable?

The answer is youth. This trade doesn't make the O's significantly better in 2012 and does nothing for them long-term. I can hammer on this point for weeks: the Orioles won 69 games in 2011 and they need to be thinking long-term. But, then, it appears to be the case that nobody wanted to give up youth for Guthrie. Yesterday de facto General Manager Dan Duquette explicitly said "We didn't have any offers of young prospects." Teams are valuing their young talent higher than ever before. That's unfortunate, but it is what it is. You have to hope now that Hammel or Lindstrom have big years and build up enough trade value to get the needed young talent into the Oriole organization.

Fox Sports' (and former Baltimore Sun writer) Ken Rosenthal chimed in on the trade, echoing a lot of my own thoughts:

The Baltimore Orioles should have traded right-hander Jeremy Guthrie at the non-waiver deadline last season, or even before. His value was higher when he was further away from free agency, under greater club control.

[snip]

The word "had" is applicable not because of Guthrie’s performance — he pitched gallantly as a No. 1 starter in the American League East, averaging nearly 200 innings and compiling an ERA-plus of 106 during the past five seasons. But the formula for trades is always the same: The higher a player’s salary, the closer he is to free agency, the less a team gets in return.

New Orioles general manager Dan Duquette inherited the situation. His predecessor, Andy MacPhail, was the executive who steadfastly held on to Guthrie. Perhaps Duquette could have made a better deal earlier in the off-season, involving a greater number of suitors.

It's impossible for regular fans to know the particulars of any trade conversation. Perhaps the Orioles never could have gotten good prospects for Jeremy Guthrie no matter what. It does feel like what Rosenthal says is right, though: the Orioles ran out the clock on this one and ended up with what feels a lot like an underwhelming trade. Moreover, Rosenthal postulates that this is just the latest in a long string of inefficient roster building moves that have defined the Orioles over the past fifteen years.

What about Koji Uehara, who was traded to Texas for Tommy Hunter and Chris Davis last summer? I bemoaned a lack of prospects coming back in that trade on the day it was made. That feeling was punctuated the very next day when Texas sent prospects Joseph Weiland and Robbie Erlin (both B+ guys according to John Sickels) to San Diego for a reliever with similar value to Koji, Mike Adams.

Or Luke Scott, who easily led the Orioles in value for the 2010 season and became the subject of some trade rumors that season? The Orioles held onto him and ended up with nothing. Or J.J. Hardy, who surely would have been coveted by contending teams lacking quality shortstops last summer. Hardy's career year came and went, and the O's still have their 29 year old shortstop.

Maybe there wasn't a deal to be had there. Maybe there wasn't with Koji, Scott, or Guthrie either. Or maybe time just ran out on all those potential deals. Or maybe we're seeing an obvious trend of a team that wants MLB ready players, even if the total potential coming into the system is less than it would be with prospects. Better to compete in the short-term than go into full rebuild mode, it would seem.

Now I think about Adam Jones. Jones is another player that has been the subject of trade rumors, who is more valuable to a contending team than to the Orioles, and who almost definitely would be worth good prospects from a contending team. He is also a player the Orioles haven't shown an eagerness to commit long-term to. That even dates back to some cryptic remarks Andy MacPhail made during a blogger Q&A about young players needing to prove themselves within three years. Jones is a player that is also rapidly approaching his free agency payday. And he remains on the Orioles.

It's what really worries me about this Jeremy Guthrie trade. The Orioles aren't and haven't been aggressive about rebuilding their talent base through prospects-for-veterans trades, and it has bitten them three times now in the past 12 months. I strongly believe that the journey between the present in Baltimore and contending has to go through the building of an absolute beast of a farm system. The Orioles have another opportunity to cash in on a high quality player in Adam Jones and accelerate that process, but all I see is the clock once again ticking down.

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