Fresh off two free agent signings (pending physicals as of this writing), the Orioles are in win-now mode. Since 2013 the team has traded several prospects for major-league ready players, forfeited draft picks in pursuit of free agents, and re-signed free agents to keep its contention window open. The Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler signings are just the latest examples of these trends, and the trends are still there even if the Gallardo deal doesn't go through.
Despite these moves, some say the 2016 Orioles are not a strong team to begin with. And as we all know, the best laid plans of humans often go awry. Players get injured, others decline, a few pitchers implode, and all of a sudden the front office and fanbase are looking at a win total in the 70’s.
If this season goes south and the 2017 season doesn’t get better, the team could find itself thinking wistfully about what it would be like to not be paying so much for so few wins. It could find itself wishing to emulate the recent success of the Astros or Cubs. It could find itself thinking about restocking the farm system in the manner of the Phillies, Braves, and Brewers.
In other words, the Orioles could initiate a rebuild. It's not a pleasant thought, and I don't intend to dampen the enthusiasm of recent activity. But the team is so all-in that I can't help but wonder what the flip side of that looks like. Should things fail to go according to plan, the Orioles and their fans will need to do more than just wonder.
So: a thought experiment.
2017 Offseason - It Begins
The team won't bail on its plan after just a poor 2016. It would take a poor 2017 also to really get the wheels turning. It might start with some DFA’s, non-tenders, or non-signings prior to 2018. For example, I doubt the team will re-sign Ubaldo Jimenez, who will be a free agent at that time. By then Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, or Chris Lee could be with the big-league club. Jimmy Paredes will also be dropped, as his on-field performance doesn’t justify a trade.
The team may keep one of either Chris Tillman or Miguel Gonzalez, both of whom will be free agents, but if Dan Duquette is signaling a rebuild maybe they don't keep both. Maybe they keep only Tillman, who is four years younger. Ryan Flaherty is probably also gone. He will be a free agent heading into his age-31 season. No place on the team of the future.
What about trades? If there is one, I suspect a reliever will be the first to go. Teams are always looking for bullpen help and trading a member of the starting lineup or rotation would be too big a signal too soon. Trading Zach Britton would be too obvious a sign, waving the white flag too early. Same with O'Day. Mychal Givens is a possibility as he will have four more years of team control.
But I think it'll be Brad Brach who gets traded first. He has done well for the Orioles but won’t be making crazy money at that point. He will have one year of team control left, so he won't be just a rental arm, and he won’t have many saves so his arbitration price tag will be low (from the acquiring team’s perspective). Sorry Brad.
2018 Mid-Season - The Dark Times
This is where it gets rough. If the Orioles are not in contention halfway through the 2018 season, the rebuild could begin in earnest with the trade of Britton at the trading deadline. Elite relievers, especially those with a closing pedigree, command higher prices during the season than after it. Considering that Britton will be a free agent after the 2018 season, it wouldn’t make sense for Duquette to watch him leave without getting something in return. He could extend Britton the qualifying offer, but that would net only a draft pick.
If Britton goes, O’Day could be next. He will have one more year left on his contract and will be making just $9 million at age 35. His low-speed delivery means there should be a few more good years left on his arm, enough for a contending team to snap him up. If Brach has not been traded by this point, he would be gone also.
In this scenario I think Caleb Joseph gets traded too. He’s old for his MLB level which works against him during a rebuild but he’s good enough to be an everyday catcher, which makes him an attractive target to other teams. Not to mention that after 2018 he will have two more years of team control remaining. Perhaps Mychal Givens will also go.
The 2018 season will be Adam Jones’ last on his contract. That will be his age-32 season and most likely he’ll be headed for a corner outfield spot. (Guys with his physical build generally don’t play center field full time after age 32.) By that point he will be an okay, not great (and maybe not even good) hitter.
I suspect the Orioles will extend or re-sign him if he’s open to playing the role of mentor on the team. 33 isn’t out-of-baseball bad, and Jones is the face of the franchise. By all accounts he is a great teammate with a lot of enthusiasm and can serve as a veteran mentor to younger players during a rebuild. There is value in keeping such icons around; fans need something to watch during a rebuild and someone’s shirseys to buy at the team gift shop.
Chris Davis isn’t going anywhere. There were no other significant bids for his services this offseason, and he will only get worse as time goes on, so I don’t think the interest after 2018 will be any higher. He won’t be atrocious; he will be entering his age-33 season and making $17 million (non-deferred) which is reasonable. But he just won’t be that attractive to other teams. He will only get traded if he’s blocking a hot prospect, like all of a sudden Christian Walker starts knocking on the door to the big leagues, and the Orioles eat a bunch of his salary. It’s also worth noting that Davis has a limited no-trade clause.
Trading Manny Machado would bring a huge haul of prospects, but I don’t think Duquette would do this unless things really get out of hand. Manny is good enough, and more importantly young enough, to form the core of a rebuilding team whose window begins to open around the 2022 time frame. Amazingly, Manny will be just 29 then.
Finally, what of Gallardo and Fowler? Assuming they are still on the team, they are absolutely trade bait. They will be in the final years of their contracts, so they will be rent-a-players. But I think each could bring back some prospects.
The Big Chip
If the team is to keep Jones, Davis, and Machado, they need some kind of big chip to dangle in front of other teams. It will be a punch in the kidneys to fans but Kevin Gausman could be that chip. Prior to 2019 he’ll be entering his age-28 season with two years of team control left. That’s an attractive proposition to teams.
This is one silver lining to the Jake Arrieta trade. I bet GMs around the league are thinking to themselves they can be the next team to fleece the Orioles for a young, raw right-hander with Cy Young potential. Hell, Arizona GM Dave Stewart just paid a hefty sum for a mid-tier starter in Shelby Miller. In two or three years he’ll still have a win-now team and should be looking to deal.
Duquette can use these emotions to extract a high price for the young fireballer, setting the Orioles up well for a rebuilding phase. All he has to do is work Arrieta's name into some subliminal messaging while texting with another GM. Do the Orioles employ a hypnotist?
Assuming his playing-time option vests and he sticks with the 2018 Orioles, I doubt J.J. Hardy will be with the team afterwards. He will be heading into his age-36 season as a glove-only shortstop in the Brendan Ryan mold, and I don’t think teams will be champing at the bit to trade for him. Duquette will probably let him walk without offering him a qualifying offer (assuming the QO system is still in place at that point).
Whither Dylan Bundy? He is out of minor-league options, so it's make-or-break time for him in the big leagues this year, and he'll have to prove himself as a reliever. After 2018, he'll be heading into his age-27 season as a first-year arb. Since he'll be under team control for another three years, keep him. He can shoulder (pun very much intended) some of the work during the lean years. The Orioles should take a chance on him breaking out.
This leaves Jonathan Schoop. It’s tempting to keep him; he’s unproven but has raw power for an up-the-middle player and has shown the ability to be a capable defender. Having him and Manny be a double-play combination in Baltimore for the next ten years would be nice. Prior to 2019 he will be entering his age-27 season, with only one year of team control left. But I think he should be dealt. The team just doesn't have that many other interesting or impact players at the moment.
Speaking of which: the rest of the current roster is slim pickings if you want to get back a good prospect or two. Åfter the 2018 season you're fishing with bait like T.J. McFarland, Francisco Pena, Odrisamer Despaigne, Efren Navarro, Chaz Roe, Jason Garcia, Mike Wright, Henry Urrutia, Tyler Wilson, Oliver Drake, and Dariel Alvarez. These gentlemen are all unproven, old for their level, or nothing exciting on the field.
Maybe McFarland returns a mid-level prospect. Maybe Despaigne turns in a Cy Young campaign and Duquette flips him and Urrutia for Mike Trout. I dunno, if I had to offer these guys on the trading block I might call in sick that day. Perhaps by 2018 or 2019 that will change and one of these players will return clear value.
Duquette and Buck Showalter are also signed through only 2018. They should stay on longer if they want to. Buck has a great reputation in working with youngsters and developing talent. His teams have largely overachieved and he should get some credit for that. Same with Duquette. He’s not perfect, but no GM is and he's done a decent job with the resources he’s been given. At the very least, the two should stick around until all the players have been dealt. They know these players better than anyone outside the organization does, and that’s an important advantage when wheeling and dealing.
Let's Hope it Doesn't Happen
Sitting here prior to the 2016 season and feeling the excitement of the Dexter Fowler signing, talk of a rebuild seems silly and perhaps mean-spirited. I get that. It's contrary to both the signals from the front office and the feelings of the fanbase at large. After all, the current plan could work; the team isn't awful and the latest FanGraphs projections see no clear favorite in the American League.
But fans might be singing a different tune if 2016, 2017, and 2018 don't go well. Windows can snap shut before you know it. There always needs to be a plan, and if the current plan doesn't go according to plan, fans might need to brace themselves for The Big R.
Now let us never speak of this again.