Let’s be honest with ourselves. Things are bleak in Birdland. The Orioles are plummeting in the standings, having gone 10-20 in their last 30 games. The wheels have fallen off the pitching staff, and the offense can’t muster anywhere close to enough pop to pick up the slack.
To make things worse, the farm system is barren and rumors are swirling (again) about tension between manager Buck Showalter and vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. This is starting to feel like the dark days of Baltimore baseball all over again.
Although many may not want to admit it, it is becoming quite plausible, maybe even likely, that the Orioles are just a bad baseball team. If that is the case, and it becomes clear to the decision-makers in the organization, then the question becomes pretty simple. To rebuild, or not to rebuild?
Opinions are split on the issues, which is to be expected. The recent beatings at the hands of the Yankees and White Sox have the reactionaries clamoring for change. Others, with the “baseball is a marathon not a sprint” mentality, would like to play things out until the trade deadline next month.
Both are valid arguments, but what many are ignoring is the fact that the Orioles, while struggling on the field right now, are not set up well to capitalize on their known assets and begin a full-on rebuilding effort.
It all starts at the top. Orioles owner Peter Angelos has gotten a lot of grief in his 24 years at the helm of the ball club; some deserved, others not. But no matter your opinion of the man, you can understand that the soon-to-be 87-year-old would like to put his best foot forward in order to keep this team as a contender in his twilight years. A full-on rebuild would greatly jeopardize that.
Lower down in the organization you have the two biggest public-facing positions; Duquette and Showalter. Duquette already tried to bolt for a bigger job with Toronto a few seasons ago. Showalter has the reputation, fair or not, of a manager who can make teams better but never get them over the hump. Both are signed through next season only. Would they want to take on a rebuild effort heading into contract years? That would be a big gamble.
An even bigger gamble would be entrusting the Orioles scouting and development staff to make the rebuild into a success. As the world is witnessing in Houston right now, the foundation is laid when a big crop of young players, that your organization drafts and develops or identifies on the trade market, break through together. Recent Orioles draftees have had some well-documented issues.
Heading into the 2017 season, Baltimore had a handful of players that the rest of the league likely viewed as elite for their position, or at least highly promising. So far this summer, those players have either disappointed or been injured far too often.
Zach Britton turned in one of the best seasons by a reliever in baseball history last year. Now, he is on the DL for the second time and will hopefully be back on the field next month. However, the lefty was nowhere near as sharp prior to the injury. Hard-throwing, left-handed relievers may be one of the most coveted assests in sports. His health concerns make his value crater.
Another disappointment on the pitching staff, but for different reasons, has been Kevin Gausman. The hard-throwing right hander has struggled mightily this season as a starter. It is his fifth big league campaign. This is when he should be figuring it out, yet it hasn’t happened.
But the biggest head scratcher has been Manny Machado. Don’t get this wrong, he is still an outstanding player that can rip the cover off of the ball and play all-world defense, but his .213/.289/.430 batting line this late in the season is a huge surprise. Of course, if the Orioles tried to trade him right now they would still get a huge haul of prospects, but the longer his struggles continue, the more other teams have to wonder what’s wrong with him and possibly lower his value a bit.
Lack of attractive assets
Those three mentioned a moment ago were probably the most attractive names on the roster for opposing teams. Machado and Britton both have one year left of team control. Gausman isn’t a free agent until 2021, but he is an afforable, cheap arm with promise that has underachieved. Outside of that trio, the team lacks moveable pieces.
Johnathan Schoop, Dylan Bundy and Trey Mancini are all having standout seasons, but they have a few years of team control. Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis have contracts that no other teams wants. J.J. Hardy’s deal is expiring, but he looks like a fossil. Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman are both free agents in the winter, but it doesn’t seem like either could possibly pitch any worse.
There are a handful of modest trade chips; Seth Smith, Hyun Soo Kim, Welington Castillo and Wade Miley. But what are any of them really worth? Maybe a mid-level prospect each? None of them are game changers on a playoff contender.
Adam Jones has one year left on his current contract. Selling him off would be quite a symbolic gesture, but he has 10-and-5 rights, which means he can veto any deal he doesn’t like. Beyond that, a deal involving Jones would be deeply unpopular with the fan base and the players. It’s a slippery slope.
Rock and a hard place
The play on the field will have to dictate what the Orioles do off the field. But unless the team suddenly looks like a World Series contender once again, the front office will find itself in a similar situation heading into the trade deadline and then the offseason. Is mediocrity acceptable? Can this group be patched up and sent back out again in 2018 or is it time to tear it all down?
Several factors indicate that this version of the Orioles is not a real challenger for the World Series. Much of the reason for that is because players that they thought they could count on have disappointed. But the decision to sell for this season needs to be made in the next six weeks. Is that enough time for their most valuable assests to turn it completely around and become worthwhile trade chips? It would seem unlikely.
So while a full rebuild is certainly still in the cards, it may be smarter for the O’s, if they are sellers at the trade deadline, to ship out their smaller, expiring players, for mid-level prospects this season. Then, wait until the offseason to unload the big boys if needed.
But this will be an ongoing discussion that does not have a simple solution. Rebuilds are long and difficult and not a whole lot of fun for the fanbase. Just be glad that you aren’t the person who has to make the decision.