"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a useful axiom for life. Along these lines, the Orioles have vaulted to second place (2.5 games back) in the AL East despite some glaring flaws with their roster. You could argue that the Orioles should stand pat at the trading deadline, counting on the same team to deliver the same results.
But I don't think that approach is enough. The time is ripe for the Orioles to be aggressive at the trade deadline in order to capitalize on their excellent first half. Standing pat won't do it, not when they're in a close division headed by a strong first-place team. No, to contend for the division title, the O's need to upgrade their current team by about four wins just to make it close, five wins to have an even shot, six wins to be safe, or seven wins to cinch it.
Seven wins! Easier said than done. But that's the lay of the land. So here's why I hope Dan Duquette is considering treading this path, followed by baseless speculation and hearsay about what moves could be made:
The AL East is a Close Race
Each team in this division has a legitimate shot at winning it. First and last place are separated by 8 games, the fewest among the three AL divisions. The Blue Jays are the worst team in this division, but they proved they are not doormats earlier this month when they went on an 11-game rampage, and they continue to thrash about over .500.
The parity in the AL East means that the Orioles need to play hard for every win. Contrast this situation with the state of teams like Seattle, where an extra four wins might inch them closer to .500 but, in a division with behemoths Texas and Oakland, will not make much of a difference.
Over the last three years, the AL East was won with 95, 97, and 96 games. The Orioles currently project out to a 92-win team, while the Red Sox project out to a 96-win team. That's 4-5 "extra" games the Orioles need to win just to make things interesting. Betting on the current team won't cut it.
Many Core Contributors are Playing Well
You don't want to waste an opportunity to leverage a season where many of your players are doing extremely well. Probability tells us that the likelihood of many things happenings simultaneously is less than one of those things happening by itself. Sure, Chris Davis may hit 30 home runs in the first half of 2014. But will Nate McLouth also be getting on base so frequently? Will Manny Machado also be so amazing at third base and at the plate? Will Adam Jones still have a playable OBP? Will Jim Johnson blow one save too many?
Good seasons from all your players align less frequently than one might expect, given free agency, injuries, extended slumps, and the variable nature of the game (and its' players talent) in general. When your team is firing on all cylinders, you don't want to waste the opportunity to cash in. Look how quickly teams like the Cubs, Twins, Brewers, Angels, White Sox, Phillies, and Mets fell out of contention and into quasi-rebuilding mode; to a lesser extent, teams like the Reds and the Nationals must have heartburn over their failures last year, because it's not looking so easy for them this year.
Putting together a great baseball team is hard. When you have one, you want to make sure to push hard to win it all, because you never know when it'll happen again. Especially when ...
The Core Contributors are at or Just Past Their Peaks
Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Troy Patton, and Wei-Yin Chen are 27; Nick Markakis and Miguel Gonzalez are 29; J.J. Hardy and Jim Johnson are 30; and Nate McLouth is 31. These guys are all playing well, but given their ages, they are candidates for declines rather than improvement in future years.
I'm not saying they won't be any good after 2013, just that the likelihood of each of them being good decreases with time. Be aggressive and make use of their prime years now.
The Team has Clear Strengths and Clear Weaknesses
Unlike some teams in contention, the O's have very clear strengths. Their offense scores the third-most runs in the game, and their defense turns the second-most balls in play into outs.
The O's also have two very clear weaknesses: starting pitching and second base. (DH is another one, but I'm counting on Danny Valencia and Wilson Betemit to fix that after the All Star break.) Dealing with such black-and-white areas is much easier than dealing with middling gray areas like "The offense is kinda good" or "The starting pitching could use a bit of improvement" or "Our third baseman isn't hitting as well as we'd like."
There's no such equivocating here. You know what you've got and you know what you don't. One good starting pitcher or second baseman isn't going to fix a team like the Dodgers or the Mariners. But a team like the Orioles is ripe for just such a quick fix.
I'm firmly in favor of trading J.J. Hardy. Hardy is great, but Manny Machado is the future, having racked up more WAR than Hardy this season despite playing a less demanding defensive position. Machado hasn't had to show that he can reverse an extended slump, which is why the move is a risk, but it's the kind of all-in move that I believe is appropriate now. If the Orioles weren't contenders or had enough starting pitching already, I would not advocate this move. But the O's are on the cusp, and packaging up Hardy for some quality starting pitching could push the team into true contention.
With Machado at SS, who would play 3B? Honestly, I've put less thought into that. Maybe Duquette calls up Zelous Wheeler to man the hot corner. He's 26 and has a .370 OBP in 2900 minor-league PAs. Maybe the O's stick the Valencia/ Betemit platoon at 3B instead of DH and hope the pair doesn't embarrass themselves too much.
Along with Hardy, I think teams would have enough interest in some combination of Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton. Matusz and Britton are young enough and not-terrible enough to cause others to think they can be serviceable major-league starters. Arrieta is a big question mark; he's 27, no longer a prospect, and has never experienced success at the major-league level. But as the saying goes, "it only takes one [other team to want him]". With 29 other teams on the hunt, and several doubling down for rebuilding, some GM out there will want him.
Finally, I'm in favor of trading Jim Johnson. Pick your reason: the idea of a closer is overrated, elite closers are typically elite for only a couple of years, Johnson is 30 and has likely seen his best days, his trade value is high but dropping as he has on-field combustions more frequently. Tommy Hunter could slot easily into the closer's role.
Other than these players, I'm a fan of raiding the farm system to win it all. Now is the time. Would I trade Dylan Bundy? His value isn't that high right now since he's undergoing TJ surgery, so that's probably a moot point. He also is young enough to have some promise. For the right offer I'd consider it, though. Further, I think the Orioles' lack of young pitching isn't a fault of their drafting but of their minor-league development system. So trading away one young pitching prospect won't hurt so much in the long run.
The leading rumor-generators are always good pitchers on bad teams. I have no idea who is available, but as a baseball blogger I consider it my inalienable right to throw names around in a wild, speculative manner. Here's a few that might tickle your fancy:
- Hisashi Iwakuma (Mariners)
- Ricky Nolasco, Kevin Slowey (Marlins)
- Yovani Gallardo (Brewers)
- Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles (Astros)
- Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza, Carlos Villanueva (Cubs)
- Anyone (White Sox)
I omitted Cliff Lee because he is crazy expensive at $25 million a year. But sure, why not? Let's consider him also.
It Ain't Easy
Believe me, I'm not saying that the O's can just pluck a pitcher off the Starting Pitcher Tree and ride off into World Series glory. Baseball doesn't work like that. Isn't that right, Toronto? Los Angeles? Los Angeles (the other one)? So I won't eat my words if the O's land Cliff Lee and Chase Utley but get swept in the ALDS.
What I'm saying is that there are times to play it safe and times when it makes sense to be aggressive and take risks. I believe now is the latter for the Baltimore Orioles. The conditions are such that the potential gains outweigh the drawbacks. But whatever happens, I'm enjoying the season and can't wait to see how the team does the rest of the year.