The Red Sox surprising Friday acquisition of closer Craig Kimbrel from the Padres should get some wheels spinning in the Warehouse, if they weren't already. If three potential years of a great closer is worth four prospects, including two players ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game, what kind of treasure trove might the Orioles be sitting on in their own closer, Zach Britton?
In exchange for Kimbrel, the Padres received top prospects Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra, a center fielder and shortstop, respectively, as well as a potential future utility infielder in Carlos Asuaje, and something of a left-handed lottery ticket in pitcher Logan Allen, an eighth round pick in the most recent MLB draft.
A hypothetical scenario where Red Sox shot caller Dave Dombrowski called up the Orioles and made the same offer for Britton would be something they would have needed to seriously consider. Even a good reliever like Britton is still just a reliever, and the Orioles depleted farm system could surely use an instant infusion of talent like that.
The O's are bereft of just about any kind of potential answer for anything in the outfield or middle infield, and with the uncertainties surrounding Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey due to their arm troubles, the Orioles don't really have any healthy top minor league talent whatsoever. Coupled with their recent trades of three starting pitching prospects in failed attempts to acquire useful outfielders - itself a product of their failure to draft and develop even one outfielder out of the system over the past ten years - it's a barren system.
It's about as crazy as it sounds
There's no getting around the fact that, no matter how great of a return you want to contemplate, trading Britton sounds like a crazy idea. For a team in the Orioles position, it goes beyond just sounding crazy. It actually is crazy. After all, unlike the Padres, the O's are coming off of a year where they finished .500 and were a disappointment in doing so. San Diego crashed to a 74-88 record despite their flurry of moves last offseason. They are likely not aiming for success in 2016. They can afford to trade a closer for future assets.
The Orioles, on the other hand, should be aiming for a better place than their 2015 finish next year. Even if they land a bunch of great or intriguing prospects akin to what Boston gave up for Kimbrel, those are probably not guys who are going to be showing up to help out in the season to come. It doesn't take a leap of faith to figure Britton to be a key component of next year's Orioles team.
Further complicating the idea of trading Britton for the O's is the fact that they're also likely to lose their eighth inning guy, Darren O'Day, as he is now a free agent with many suitors. The Orioles might feel, and they might be right, that between Brad Brach and Mychal Givens they can manage to plug their set-up man gap, but in a scenario where Britton also departs, now you're counting on one of those guys as closer and one of them as the eighth inning guy, with no heirs apparent should either one stumble in a new role.
That's a big chance to take, even if you view relievers as largely fungible assets. While it's true that there's a ceiling on the value of even the best reliever, it's also possible to swing and miss on reliever solutions, to the detriment of the team's ongoing success. Having one guy who can be more or less etched in stone out there is worth something, even if that only ends up being one question mark fewer that will occupy you with worry.
Imagine what happened in left and right field this year with the eighth and ninth inning spots in the bullpen next year. It's not a pretty picture.
Another similar deal might not be out there
The circumstances that led the Red Sox to acquire Kimbrel may not exist anywhere else in baseball, so all of this may be just your standard time-wasting offseason navel-gazing anyway. Sorry. There's only so many things to contemplate right now.
What's different about Boston is that it's a team that essentially demands permanent competitiveness, and they have what is regarded around the game as a loaded farm system. They've also got the payroll resources such that Kimbrel's potential three years and $37.5 million remaining on his contract don't really matter to them. They mint money up there, win or lose. Added to that, they have a GM-type in Dombrowski who's new to the organization and may not necessarily be attached to any of the existing prospects.
Any other team that decides it really wants to improve its closer situation could just sign O'Day on the free agent market at the cost of only money. Who would even be out there that might want to give up a significant return for Britton at this point in time? Maybe no one, but then again, before they acquied Kimbrel, nobody would have likely pegged Boston as a destination for him, either.
When a Britton trade might make sense
OK, but what if the Orioles manage to re-sign O'Day themselves? Now you can potentially use O'Day as the closer and trade Britton - or if no team wants to give up a good return, continue to use both. The appeal in this scenario is that O'Day's free agent contract will likely cost in the realm of $8 million less than Britton's arbitration salary over the next three seasons. The O's can then cash in Britton and do some reloading of their minor league system.
Another situation that might lead to a trade of Britton looking more appealing is one where the 2016 Orioles are not anywhere near the race at the trade deadline. That's not much of a fun idea to contemplate, because trading the closer at the deadline is what loser teams do. The Orioles aren't a loser team and I don't want them to go back to being a loser team.
If they do end up losing, they can dangle 2.5 years of Britton to some contending team and maybe extract a high price. Teams don't want to go into the postseason, or attempt to get into the postseason, with a trash bullpen. When your bullpen is trash you can get to the World Series and end up like the Mets. And to those desperate teams they can say, well, you'd better give us that extra prospect or else we're going to end up trading him to that team you're chasing for a postseason spot, or who you might face in the postseason...
Win or lose in 2016, we still might see the Orioles contemplating a Britton trade in a year's time. If he performs nearly as well as he's done over the last couple of years, he'll probably be looking at a $10 million salary one more year down the road. That's the point where the O's balked at keeping Jim Johnson, although in Britton's case, he has been much more dominant than Johnson ever was, despite Johnson's high save totals.
Britton would seem to hold more value by staying with the O's than Johnson did. Still, if the Orioles do nonetheless foresee trading Britton in a year anyway, why not think harder about doing it right now, when the return they'd get for three years of control would be even greater than what they'd get for only two years?
Trading Zach Britton is not any kind of no-brainer or obvious move guaranteed to improve the fortunes of the Orioles franchise in either the short-term or the long-term. They would have to find the right trade to strike the right balance, and even if they managed to do that, it would cause heartburn to Orioles fans in the process, now and probably in the ninth inning next year too.
Still, they should at least ask. Maybe another Kimbrel trade haul is floating around out there somewhere.