The idea of the Orioles trading Zach Britton is not appealing. The team’s barren farm system and major wave of expiring contracts between now and the end of the 2018 season seem to signal that they have little choice but to do everything they can to win over the next couple of seasons.
Yet even knowing that, each successive closer trade or signing elsewhere in baseball makes it more tempting to think that the Orioles should at least explore the idea of trading Britton. The current worth of a closer makes it impossible for them not to.
Within the past year, there were big hauls in trades for Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman, and on this year’s free agent market, Chapman and Mark Melancon have already cashed in and Kenley Jansen stands poised to cash in soon. This is the price for elite relievers right now. There is no doubt that Britton is on that level.
Given all of that, baseball writers almost seem to not be able to start talking about the idea that the O’s could or should move Britton. One representative example is ESPN’s prospect writer Keith Law, who told MASN’s Steve Melewski at the Winter Meetings that the Orioles could probably demand two top 50 or 60 prospects for Britton with lesser prospects thrown in as well.
That’s a big haul, and a tempting one even to someone like me who doesn’t want to see the O’s trade Britton. The Orioles presently have either one or zero top 100 prospects in baseball, depending on whether the publication likes Chance Sisco. Other than Sisco, they have effectively no near-term prospects on the way to fill any of the soon-to-be-vacant roster spots.
Regardless, the Orioles have a horrible farm system that will not be doing much to help the team in the future, no matter how much Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette protest this reality. When J.J. Hardy becomes a free agent after next season, sure, you can slide over Manny Machado, but then you need a third baseman, and Machado will be a free agent one more year down the road anyway.
Chris Tillman, Yovani Gallardo, Wade Miley, and Ubaldo Jimenez could all end up being free agents after next season. You may not want to see any more of several of those guys, but the fact is that if you don’t see them, you’re going to see someone like Mike Wright or Tyler Wilson.
Barring a new contract extension, 2018 will be the last year for Adam Jones in addition to Machado, and for that matter, both Showalter and Duquette currently have contracts that expire after the 2018 season. The way things look right now, things are very bleak for the team’s fortunes beyond that point.
There are two reasonable, diametrically opposed ways to look at this. One is to say, “Leeroyyyyy Jenkins!” and charge into battle with the AL East. As my fellow nerds reading this know, Leeroy ultimately lost and brought defeat to all of his companions, but hey, at least he had chicken. The other is to step back and say, you know what? The Orioles really need to re-stock for the future.
You can put me in the Leeroy camp. As I’ve written in the past, trading your closer is for losers, which the Orioles, who’ve made the playoffs three times in five seasons, are not any longer. But I do understand the temptation to cash in and replenish the farm somewhat. It is dire down there.
A problem for the trade Britton proponents is that the evolution of the market over the last year or so doesn’t seem to leave many potential “Britton for two top 50 prospects and more” deals dangling around out there.
For the most part, the teams that have a lot of good prospects aren’t the teams looking for a closer. They’ve either already got their closer - like the O’s division rival Yankees and Red Sox - or they’re wheel-spinning teams who are going nowhere, know they’re going nowhere, and have no business trading for a player like Britton.
It’s all well and good to ogle the top 100 prospects list and see how it’s loaded with Pirates, Padres, Braves, Yankees, and White Sox prospects, but four of those teams weren’t good this year and are signalling that they won’t be next year either. And the Yankees just signed their $86 million man.
On the other hand, the teams still looking for a closer are mostly the teams who don’t have top prospects to trade. The Nationals are believed to have been in the Melancon market, but they missed out. The Marlins were spurned by Chapman for the Yankees. There are also the Dodgers, who are losing Jansen to free agency, unless they sign him back.
That seems to be the closer market right now. Only one of those teams can sign Jansen. The other two could potentially look for David Robertson of the White Sox, if they continue their sell-off, or an unexpected market entrant like Britton, if the O’s chose to make him available. But they can’t all make a deal happen that’s appropriate for Britton’s value.
2016 closer(s): Melancon, Jonathan Papelbon
2017 closer apparent: Shawn Kelley? (signed through 2018)
Let’s forget for a second that the Nationals didn’t just heavily deplete their top prospect stock when they made the trade for Adam Eaton. They do still have two top 100 prospects, including #10 prospect Victor Robles.
Even if there was a match here, do you think Peter Angelos is going to countenance trading his elite closer to the team down the road, a team which, based on court filings, the Orioles feel is conspiring with MLB to screw them out of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue?
The world can always surprise me, but the Nationals being a serious Britton suitor, if he was even made available, would REALLY surprise me.
2016 closer: A.J. Ramos
2017 closer apparent: Ramos (signed through 2018)
The Marlins have been said to be chasing after the top free agent closers on orders of ownership. Would they be as interested in a Britton trade? Well, even if they were, the Marlins have only one top 100 prospect: Braxton Garrett, a lefty pitcher, at #37.
Absent something unexpected, like the Marlins being willing to include Christian Yelich, who is signed to a team-friendly contract through 2022, there doesn’t seem to be enough quality to be worth a trade here.
Los Angeles Dodgers
2016 closer: Jansen
2017 closer apparent: Pedro Baez? (signed through 2020)
The best case scenario for the trade Britton camp would probably be if the Marlins signed Jansen and left the Dodgers in the lurch. That might get them thinking about ponying up a big trade return to keep an elite closer at the back end of their bullpen.
Although the Dodgers recently graduated top prospects like Julio Urias, Joc Pederson, and Corey Seager to the big leagues, any of whom would presumably be off-limits in a trade like this, they do still have six prospects in the top 100 and three in the top 50, though none is higher on the list than #32. Is that enough to make it worthwhile? Should it be? Eh.
Unless some team comes along and tries to blow away the Orioles with a trade package that contains both prospects and good, young, team-controlled players (especially if one of them is an outfielder,) it seems like now is not the time for trading Britton. Just about everyone who wants a closer seems to already have one.
If July rolls along and the Orioles stink because their starting rotation is bad again and the offense isn’t hitting enough home runs at the right moments to compensate for it, they should re-visit the idea of trading Britton. He almost might even fetch more in a mid-season trade as a team that knows it’s in contention decides to get serious to get 1.5 years of such an elite reliever.
Until things play out that way - and here’s hoping they don’t by virtue of the Orioles actually being good and still needing Britton - the Orioles should keep Britton all to themselves. He’s pretty good, you know.