The best thing about the All-Star break for the Orioles is that it presented them with four days in which their starting pitchers didn’t have to take the mound. That was a good chance to feel hopeful again. One ugly series against the Cubs later and there’s no hiding from the fact that the Orioles are a hot mess, probably an irreparable one.
This awareness has percolated up into the Orioles front office. According to a Ken Rosenthal report on Sunday afternoon, the team is now preparing for a sell-off, at least, as long as owner Peter Angelos approves. However, whatever happens, a full fire sale does not appear to be the plan, because there’s one key condition: Rosenthal notes that several O’s, most notably Manny Machado, are not on the trading block.
That leaves the Orioles some latitude to make moves by trading relievers Zach Britton or Brad Brach, and if teams are interested, possibly veterans like Welington Castillo and Seth Smith as well.
As the Orioles have fallen to seven games below .500 and six games out of the wild card, the debate about what to do this month has morphed from a “Buy or sell?” debate into a “How much should the Orioles sell?” debate.
There’s no way to read Dan Duquette’s mind, but it sure seems like by keeping Machado the Orioles are looking to avoid punting on the 2018 season even though they’re waving the white flag on this year. That puts a limit on what they can acquire to help them in the future. Even with the down season that he’s having, Machado’s track record is such that many teams would surely try to pounce if he became available.
This is not the trade deadline argument that anyone would have picked to have before the season. It’s what we’re going to get for the next two weeks, though. The Orioles are not very likely to get themselves out of the hole that the rotation has dug for them.
Is the idea of competing in 2018 a reasonable one, or is it more of the fool’s hope that belief in the 2017 has turned out to be? That’s now the most important question for the Orioles to figure out. Since the Orioles still seem to have their eye on 2018, it’s worth thinking about what a competitive season from that team might look like.
Who will even be on the team? If we remove Britton and Brach from the equation, as well as everyone who can be a free agent after this season, we end up with a team that looks something like this:
- Starting pitchers: Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, ???
- Bullpen: Mychal Givens (closer), Darren O’Day, Donnie Hart, Richard Bleier, ???
- Infield: Manny Machado, ???, Jonathan Schoop, Chris Davis
- Outfield: Trey Mancini, Adam Jones, ???
- Designated hitter: Mark Trumbo
- Catcher: Welington Castillo
- Bench: Caleb Joseph, Joey Rickard, ???
- Possible prospect help: Chance Sisco (C), Austin Hays (OF), Tanner Scott (Bullpen)
It’s not a pretty list to look at, is it? There’s an offense that, even if you could guarantee a Machado revival, is probably still going to be OBP-challenged. Neither Davis nor Trumbo has given much reason to hope from a turnaround for them, but their contracts mean they’re around regardless.
Maybe the best thing here is addition by subtraction with the starting rotation. This is one of those cases where there would be a classic choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t know. Unless something weird happens, the Orioles are going to get introduced to the devil they don’t know.
There are two big problems with this. The first one is simple: The list of pending free agent starting pitchers from MLB Trade Rumors is, um, not inspiring. The second one is a bit more complicated: Figuring out how much money the Orioles might actually have to try to improve next year’s team.
This “How much money?” question has been problematic for the Orioles lately, with little money made available to do more than sign some of their own free agents and pay arbitration raises to their own players, despite the fact that the payroll keeps ballooning.
That’s not necessarily going to be the case next year. A lot of money is clearing off the books. If we add in Britton and Brach to the extensive list of pending free agents - most notably Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman, and J.J. Hardy - you get something like $75 million on this year’s payroll that will be gone next year.
Additionally, payroll has gone up by no less than $10 million per year every season since Dan Duquette arrived. Can that be counted on again? Maybe not after a 2017 that turns into a disappointing sell-off, but if the team is serious about trying to build excitement, they could keep the party going.
That’s a potential $85 million. That’s not all getting sucked up by arbitration raises to Machado, Schoop, and Gausman, nor by the slight increases called for in the Jones, Trumbo, and O’Day contracts. So maybe it’s more like $60 million for free agents. That’s real money even when you consider that the Orioles have to stretch it for three starting rotation spots, a shortstop or third baseman, and maybe a real outfielder.
It looks like the core of a team that can be competitive enough as long as its starting rotation isn’t absolutely horrible. Sounds a lot like the 2017 team, come to think of it. Is Gausman going to be better? Can they sign better free agents than Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo?
Can the Orioles turn any one of their scrap heap minor league starting pitchers into an acceptable big league rotation guy? Or can they add a better near-MLB-ready starter into the mix with some of the trades that they might make?
Get the right desperate team with the right prospect to offer and maybe they can. After all, the Orioles themselves traded Zach Davies for Gerardo Parra at the deadline 2015. You don’t even have to necessarily dangle a star player in order to get a future useful big leaguer, if you do your scouting right on the right player. Whether it’s worth believing in the O’s scouting is another argument entirely.
Barring a miracle or a reversal, this is the stuff that the Orioles have to start figuring out over the next two weeks and especially on into the offseason. Here’s hoping they figure out the right answers.