On the day of this year's trading deadline, the Orioles woke up four games under .500 and 5.5 games out of the second wild card spot in the American League East. The O's had four teams to pass, with an additional two teams tied with them in the standings. This landscape made it seem like almost a no-brainer for the Orioles to trade Zach Britton. As we know, they did not do so. How does this decision look now?
Before tackling that question, it's important to get a handle on what the O's trading Britton on July 31 may have looked like, if it had happened.
Although those in Birdland who advocated for trading Britton frequently seemed to imagine the Orioles landing one or more top prospects, figuring that teams would need to respect Britton's elite 2016 season to get him, subsequent reporting from Jon Heyman painted a different picture.
The Orioles were reported to have been close to a deal to trade Britton to the Astros, according to Heyman, before that deal was scuttled due to medical concerns the O's had with one or more of the prospects the Astros were offering.
This produced the standard sigh about Orioles medical stuff. However, another key detail is that the Astros were not offering any of their top five prospects. That is, no top 100 prospects in the game were on the table. The O's were said by Yahoo's Jeff Passan to be considering the Dodgers as trade partners within 30 minutes of the deadline. The Dodgers were reportedly also not offering their top prospects.
If the Orioles were ever going to be trading Britton at the July deadline, it's clear that they would have gotten significantly less of a return than the "Trade Britton!" crowd imagined based on last year's deadline deals for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. The uncertainty surrounding his health after two disabled list stints appears to have been much more of a drag on his value than might have been hoped.
Keeping that in mind, the core question remains. What does the decision not to trade Britton look like now?
They say it's 20/20 for a reason. A lot of things look more clear when you can look back at them with the benefit of knowing what happened.
With the Orioles going on to finish ten games out of the second wild card spot, the decision not to trade Britton appears to be a gamble that the Orioles lost in a big way.
You don't even need to look at their place in the standings to know this. On top of Britton's forearm questions that put him on the DL, there was also some kind of mystery knee problem that sidelined him for the last stretch of the season.
The book is not yet closed as for what the Orioles might get out of Britton for not trading him. There's still the 2018 season where he will pitch for them. The pessimist surely fears that 2018 will be much like 2017 was for Britton.
What they knew then
It's not fair to the Orioles to judge them solely based on hindsight.
Still, the set of facts available to the Orioles on the morning of July 31 perhaps should have been enough to nudge them towards a Britton trade. A 5.5 game deficit was really a lot and with so many teams in the picture, it would have taken something special for the Orioles to emerge out of that pack.
What was different this season compared to their successful seasons is that these Orioles were more clearly flawed. That manifested significantly, but not solely, in the form of what turned out to be an MLB-worst starting rotation.
Even allowing for the possibility that the Jeremy Hellickson acquisition might have improved the rotation somewhat, the Orioles would have still had 40% of a horrible rotation to figure out what to do with. Of course, reality exposed any hopes for Hellickson to fix things as being the fool's hopes that they always were.
Despite a 5.5 game deficit seeming hopeless in a crowded field, keep in mind that at this point, the Orioles were actually only half a game behind the eventual second wild card winners, the Twins. Minnesota was five games back at the trade deadline. They finished five games ahead of any of the closest competition for that spot. That was even after they traded away two players at the deadline.
Neither of these things make it look like a great idea for the O's to have not traded Britton, even for a lesser return.
The value of trying
By not trading Britton, by acquiring Hellickson and Tim Beckham, the Orioles made an effort to contend. We know, in the end, this was a futile effort. The fact that it was ultimately meaningless does not mean that it was always so.
As late as August 30, the Orioles were within 2.5 games of the first wild card spot, and only 1.5 games out of the second spot. At the end of September 5, the 139th game of the season, the Orioles were only one game back of that second wild card spot.
There is no prize for this. It means nothing to compete for an extra five weeks before collapsing. Even the seven-game winning streak in late August doesn't seem to have spurred a whole lot of excitement for people to get out and go to Oriole Park at Camden Yards to watch the team chase a postseason spot.
Three out of four games of that Thursday-Sunday Labor Day weekend series against the Blue Jays drew fewer than 17,000 fans. Even the one game that drew more only drew 27,231. Maybe they were all at the beach or maybe they didn't want to spend money to watch Hellickson or Wade Miley.
That said, the 7-20 swoon was not inevitable. There is some ephemeral value in the front office showing the players that it believed in them. It just wasn't enough to overcome whatever it was that ailed them in September. The Orioles hit the worst case scenario in several different ways.
If one accepts the explanation of Chris Davis for the September swoon, perhaps it really WAS inevitable, a ticking time bomb of sorts that had been waiting to explode all season. In the middle of that 7-20 slide, Davis told The Baltimore Sun:
I think just over the course of the season, those stretches where we felt like we were fighting and clawing just to try to get a win, then end up losing several in a row after winning a few games, it takes a lot out of you. When you get to September, you almost feel like you have new life because you're still in the hunt.
... I just think this year, we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. We were really digging deep, and there just wasn't anything there left to give. And it was obvious. It was obvious on the field.
Reading that again is so depressing it almost makes me not want to bother to write any more.
The 2017 Orioles were always going to be losers, it sounds like. With that rotation, how could it have been any different? But it didn't look like it on September 5 - or even, necessarily, on July 31. For much longer than I believed possible, the decision not to trade Britton did not seem to be a bad one.
With the benefit of hindsight, not trading Britton is far less defensible. Between his forearm and his knee, it's hard to know if he will be able to reclaim anything like his former success.
By not settling for one of those lesser returns in July, the Orioles have made a $15 million-ish bet that Britton's 2018 season will be worth more to the team than what they could have gotten for him at the deadline. I hope they're right.