With the Orioles fresh off of stumbling their way through a 1-5 road trip against the White Sox and Twins, it doesn't take much of a stretch to look at the way things are going for the team right now and think that something needs to change if they're really going to compete for a division title or wild card playoff spot this season. Keeping in mind the adage that you're never as bad as you look when you're doing badly, the O's need to figure out where they stand and, if they don't measure up, whether there are trades they can make to do something about it.
The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline creeps closer every day. If the Orioles don't want to rely on an ever-revolving cast of Triple-A callups whom they must bring up and then cross their fingers, the trade market is the place they'll have to look to shore up what holes their might be on the roster. You can't spend the whole season waiting for the next Chris Parmelee or Chaz Roe every time you hit a rough patch, especially since, as we've seen of late, there's no guarantee that a couple of good weeks are going to last.
In Dan Duquette's tenure, the Orioles have not been shy about trying to make moves ahead of the deadline. July of 2012 brought Jim Thome to Baltimore; the next year, the O's snagged a pair of starting pitchers, Scott Feldman and Bud Norris. Last year, the big move was adding Andrew Miller to an already-strong bullpen.
For 2012 and 2014, the Orioles made the playoffs and were probably going to make the playoffs whether or not these specific moves were made. In 2013, the O's missed the playoffs and the failure of those two acquisitions to provide the boost the O's were looking for was a big part of why they came up short that year. Norris and Feldman combined for a 4.46 ERA for the 2013 Orioles.
Two out of three ain't bad
The best you can really say about those 2013 trades is they kept the O's from needing to run out the likes of Freddy Garcia. It also spared them continuing to feel the urge to toss Kevin Gausman, who'd been in the professional ranks for less than a year at that point, to the wolves. They made the Orioles look competitor-ish.
On July 2, the day the Orioles traded for Feldman, they had a record of 47-37. They were 3.5 games behind the leading Red Sox at that time, though they were in line to be the road team in the wild card game - which would have been a rematch with the Rangers. By the end of the month, when they completed the Norris trade, they were 59-49, tied with Texas, still holding at 10 games over .500.
However, they'd fallen to 5.5 games back in the division and, if the season somehow ended on that day but still had a postseason, they would have been half a game back of the Indians for the road wild card team spot that would have had to go play in Tampa. When the season drew to a close, the Rangers, Rays, and Indians were all there at 91-92 wins. Only the Orioles fell back from teams contending in July. They finished 85-77.
If you've been reading or listening to things emanating from MASN writers and broadcasts over the last week or so, you've probably heard them pointing out the similarity between last year's record and this year's. Through 81 games last year, for instance, the Orioles were 42-39, and they found themselves 1.5 games back of the division lead. This year's O's were also 42-39 through 81 games, two games back of the AL East lead.
The Twins sweep has thrown a wrench into the comparison, at least for now, The 2014 Orioles won the next four games and after 85 games were tied for the division lead. Two of their rivals were far out of the picture. They took sole possession of the lead after a doubleheader two days later and never relinquished it.
Toto, I've a feeling it's not 2014 any more
The 2015 O's have gone 1-3 in the same stretch. They're just a game over .500 and tied for third in the division, 2.5 games back. Not a single AL East team is out of the race this time. Even the last place Red Sox are only another 2.5 games behind the Orioles. The division crown is there for the taking, which is a plus, but it's also there for anyone to take.
The question facing the front office is whether this team is some kind of unremarkable caterpillar waiting to emerge from the cocoon in the middle of the summer as a beautiful baseball team, or whether it's more like the 2013 team, a group with some big strengths and also some big holes that, for various reasons, it could never plug up the way that it might have liked to do.
There are reasons you could convince yourself that the team is just waiting to get the corner turned here in 2015. The return of Jonathan Schoop is a big positive, and so is the fact that Norris has been kicked into the bullpen. Manny Machado is showing himself to be a fantastic player who's taken a big leap forward at the plate, so much so that you want the Orioles to lock him up for all the years and all of the dollars as soon as possible. The 8th and 9th innings of any game with a narrow lead are fairly safe in the hands of the All-Star duo of Darren O'Day and Zach Britton.
That said, many flaws remain. Chris Tillman is a problem for as long as he remains in the rotation. For all the shuffling that they have done, they still haven't really found the combination of corner outfielders that can both at least hit OK and field OK. Maybe Kevin Gausman is an answer to one of the problem spots in the rotation. Maybe he's not. The O's still don't really know.
What's more, Adam Jones has a .633 OPS since June 28, when he returned to the lineup after missing five straight games. What if it turns out he's still banged up a bit? He won't get the All-Star Break off, either, since he was selected to the team. J.J. Hardy is hitting like Mark Belanger without fielding him. There are many reasons to believe this team is more like 2013 than 2014.
The costs and benefits of the trades of '13
OK, so what if it is more like 2013 than 2014? What did they really give up in those big '13 trades, and what did they end up getting in return?
The combined cost of the Norris and Feldman trades was Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, L.J. Hoes, Josh Hader, and the #37 overall pick in the 2014 draft. The Orioles would have forfeited the pick when they signed Cruz if they hadn't already traded it.
Chicago has essentially gotten the best case outcome out of the trade. Arrieta has transformed into one of the better pitchers in the National League. He's cut his walk rate and home run rate drastically. He was 27 when the Orioles traded him and he had a 5.46 ERA in nearly two full seasons worth of innings for the O's - innings scattered over four seasons due to his struggles earning demotions. When the Orioles sucked, it was easy to stay patient with him. When the team started to succeed, they weren't able to keep waiting on him to figure it out.
It seems very likely that the combination of some Cubs pitching development as well as getting to slide from the AL East to the NL Central has greatly benefited Arrieta's career. I'm still happy for him. Strop, by the way, has also cut his walk rate and upped his strikeout rate. He's in the middle of his third solid season for the Cubs. Makes you wonder what the O's were doing wrong with these guys, but it seems unlikely that either would have had that success here.
The Orioles did not get a great outcome out of Feldman. In retrospect, this doesn't seem like a surprise. Here was a guy who, at his best prior to 2013, had a couple of seasons that were kind of OK. Most of his time in Texas was outright bad. Feldman signed a one-year contract with the Cubs, turned in his first good season in his first ever time pitching in the NL. Of course that didn't turn out so hot. Feldman was essentially the same pitcher in both leagues, just with the Orioles he had to face real hitters. His ERA inflated accordingly.
As far as the Astros trade goes, Houston hasn't gotten much out of Hoes, who's gotten a total of 318 plate appearances in the nearly two years since the trade. His name is coming up in trade rumors this year as a guy they've got no more use for. Hader might still turn into something; he has a 3.23 ERA for the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks this season, splitting between starting and relief. He's walking more guys than you'd like to see, but striking out a lot as well.
The Astros used the pick to draft outfielder Derek Fisher, who currently has a .790 OPS in High-A. That's an asset the Orioles gave up, but as it turned out it wasn't an asset they'd have been able to use. Its cost is less now than when the trade was made.
What they got in Norris was underwhelming in 2013, which was also predictable for anyone who had given a cursory glance to his career statistics, or at the very least his home/road splits. Of course taking him out of Minute Maid Park and dropping him into Oriole Park at Camden Yards wouldn't go well. Even then, Norris went on to be a key part of a division-winning starting rotation in 2014. That's more big league value than the Astros have gotten out of the trade to date, and if they're going to pull ahead, it's at least a couple of years down the road.
Actually, if you go purely by Wins Above Replacement, Bud's 2015 has nearly canceled out his 2014. I'm giving him arbitrary bonus Mark WAR (mWAR) for being on a division winner. You don't get any bonus prizes or playoff spots for being the team with the best $/WAR. Norris' 2014 is enough for me to be happy with that one, especially if he continues to be pushed to the margins this year.
The value of trying
These trades feel like failures by virtue of the Orioles missing out on the playoffs in 2013. Things are a bit more complex than that, though. The team did miss out on a spot by six games, but they were actually within one game of the second wild card spot as late as Game #151, in which they beat the Red Sox, 5-3.
So they really were in it almost to the last week of the season... or at least until they lost the next six in a row, one of which was the game where Machado suffered the first of his serious knee injuries. And when you get down to it, they lost four of those six games while scoring three runs or fewer. The offense also played a role in the team falling short that year.
The Jedi Master Yoda famously scolded his disbelieving apprentice Luke Skywalker by saying, "There is no try." This is true when the task at hand is lifting a sunken X-Wing out of a swamp using the power of the Force. It's not necessarily true about running a baseball team.
It's worth something to try, even if you end up coming up short. It's worth something, even if you can't put a number of runs on it, that the players in the clubhouse know the team is always trying to put them in the best position they can. It's worth something to the fans to see that a team hasn't just given up on a season, and especially to Orioles fans who, in 2013, were still only one good season past 15 years of losing.
There might not have been many tickets sold because people wanted to be able to tell their kids they saw Norris or Feldman, but the Orioles continuing to be a non-crappy team was surely worth some ticket sales. Camden Yards is a fun place to be, especially if you think the Orioles might win. Ticket sales mean dollars, and dollars mean the team can spend more - like, say, the extra $12 million or so more they spent in 2014 compared to 2013.
In and of itself, an 85-win season is pretty meaningless, but when it represents continuing an upward trend after a decade and a half in the dumps, that matters, even if there were no playoff games at Camden Yards that year.
The final verdict
Flawed team though they might be, the 2015 Orioles are in the midst of a sea of flawed teams. If they can go out and become a little less flawed at the trade deadline, that's worth something.
That's not to say they should like, go totally bonkers and trade Hunter Harvey for Johnny Cueto or Justin Upton or something. Could you even imagine if that happened? I wouldn't know what to do with myself. But somewhere out there across MLB is a team with an asset that's an upgrade over something the Orioles have now, and if that team's willing to take the usual Duquettian assortment of excess baggage and future lottery tickets for their tangible MLB asset, Duquette ought to - and, knowing him, will - jump all over that.
The 2015 season represents the last season as an Oriole for a number of the key contributors of the past few years of success. Next year's team will look different, perhaps not for the better. That doesn't mean the Orioles should mortgage the entire future for the here and now, but they also shouldn't just sit around and wait for some prospect-laden future that, as we know, may never actually arrive.
The 2013 Orioles made a couple of trades and came up short. That doesn't mean that they were entirely wrong to do so, although we can certainly hope that this time around, their assessments of the players they acquire are more in touch with reality than hopes and dreams. The division is still there for the taking and the Orioles could surely be the team to take it. The help that they can summon from Norfolk might not be enough. They'll have to venture out and take a chance. Hopefully it'll be the right chance.