It is accepted in song, literature, television, and motion pictures that you can’t ever go home again. No place or thing will ever be the same as you remember them when they were new and you were young. Life, and people, are always moving on and changing. No one seems to have told the Orioles about this principle.
The Orioles would like very much to go home again, or at least to go back to the 2014 season. How else can you explain that, twice in the last month, they have re-acquired players from that fantastic division winner? Sunday’s signing of Tommy Hunter is the return of a guy everybody liked, and so was last month’s trade for Steve Pearce, another guy everybody liked.
I mean, really. How could you not like either of those guys? Pearce will forever live on as part of the legend of Team Steve, and as the guy who spurned the Blue Jays to return to the Orioles even after the Orioles DFA’d him - then went on to be great. That was awesome!
Hunter was an important part of the team, too, even if he occasionally went boom. Remember that thing with the beer bottles from the division clincher in 2014? That was great.
Signing Hunter again is harmless enough. He only costs a roster spot and pay for a month or so, and the Orioles bullpen was desperate anyway. Pearce, on the other hand, cost a catching prospect, Jonah Heim, who may have some promise, and Pearce has both slumped and suffered a nagging injury in the month since that trade.
Then again, the only reason they had to trade to get him back was because they chose NOT to bring back the entire band from last season.
This “Bring everybody back!” kind of mentality is not a new thing for the Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter brain trust. This is the strategy they pursued after both the 2012 wild card-winning team and the 2014 division winners. Heck, it was even the strategy pursued last offseason, after a .500 Orioles squad. The O’s retained many of their key free agents, including Matt Wieters (by qualifying offer), Chris Davis, and Darren O’Day.
It’s a bit more understandable when that’s the strategy pursued after a good O’s season just finished. After all, why wouldn’t you want to bring back everyone who was just part of a good team? But it’s not that easy.
When “Keep everyone!” goes wrong
Performance isn’t constant from one year to the next, not for everyone. The 2012 Nate McLouth is not the 2013 Nate McLouth. Nor were Jim Johnson or Pedro Strop the same from year to year, nor Jason Hammel, much to the O’s chagrin.
Others who were obviously never going anywhere between the two seasons dropped off as well: Wieters hit poorly at the plate in ‘13 compared to ‘12, and Nick Markakis saw his production plummet significantly between those two seasons. Wei-Yin Chen was fine in ‘13 but he was hurt for a while and in his absence pitched Freddy Garcia.
Almost the same exact thing played out going from the 2014 season to the 2015 season. The Orioles endeavored to bring back as many of the core contributors of the team as possible, with the notable exceptions of Markakis and Nelson Cruz.
While the absence of those players was felt by the utter inadequacy of their replacements, it was the year-to-year drop-offs from the key contributors who remained that really sank last year’s O’s team.
Significant declines in performance from Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris proved to be major dampers on their fortune. Of course, NOT keeping Gonzalez from ‘15 to ‘16 is something that cost them, too.
Bringing back the whole same rotation from the 2014 division winner, when they were all still under team control for reasonable costs, wasn’t a crazy idea, but when three-fifths of them were much worse, the Orioles were sunk. There was no way to overcome that.
As well, the Delmon Young of 2015 wasn’t the same as the Young of 2014. Pearce dropped off in a big way, and so did J.J. Hardy, who they signed to a contract extension before the postseason was even over. Even smaller contributors like David Lough and Alejandro De Aza were so much worse that the Orioles had little choice but to be rid of them.
Will they try to keep this band together?
Things just don’t stay the same from year to year. They also do not move predictably for each player based on what you would think for their age curve. A player can have a bad season and still have something in the tank - see Tillman’s return to a better form this year. Or a guy’s ability to play baseball at a competitive level can just disappear abruptly, never to return. It’s a tough guessing game, deciding which is which.
However the 2016 season closes out, the O’s will soon be facing these kinds of “keep the band together” questions. Is Mark Trumbo someone who should be kept even at a big cost? There’s surely no one in the organization to replace him. But will he have another 40+ homer season in him, or more than one such season?
Are Brad Brach and Zach Britton going to keep up their elite performance into next season? If the answer is no, or rather if the Orioles believe that answer is no, a trade while value is high is a necessity. Showalter has been fond of saying, “I like our guys,” and Orioles fans have adopted that idea too. I do like our guys! I don’t want them to be traded.
Yet there are times this could be for the best, and holding on to our guys forever just because they were once our guys leaves the Orioles saddled with a number of stagnant year-after performances. It remains to be seen whether sparing no expense to retain Davis, or ponying up the extra year to keep O’Day, will be good moves in the long run.
With this pattern over several years of the Orioles liking to keep their guys, we shouldn’t be surprised that this means that sometimes they will bring back those players, as in the recent cases of Hunter and Pearce. If either or both of those moves end up working out, perhaps that will be a sign that you can go home again after all. Someone should write a song about that.