There's something a little extra special about everybody who was a part of the Orioles in either 2012 or 2014, and especially those who were around for both. They're our guys, and as Buck Showalter once said and the Orioles once put on a t-shirt, I like our guys. Unfortunately, the reality is that our guys can't be our guys forever.
A prime example is J.J. Hardy. The longtime Oriole got just about the best send-off you can get on Sunday afternoon, with teammates and fans giving him a standing ovation before his first at-bat and Hardy himself adding to the drama with a go-ahead home run later in the game, leading to Hardy receiving a curtain call. These were emotional moments because everyone could assume Hardy will be gone at season's end.
It's hard to imagine a successful Orioles team that doesn't have Hardy on it. There hasn't been one in the 21st century. But with Hardy combining to bat just .237/.274/.347 over the past three seasons, with Tim Beckham acquired at the trade deadline, and with Hardy already at age 35 as his contract expires, the reality of what needs to be done is obvious to everyone involved, no matter what Hardy has meant.
Hardy hasn't hit enough to be a regular. It's not clear that he can stay healthy enough. As a reserve, he wouldn't have any value either, because he's never played any position other than shortstop in an MLB career that dates back to 2005. The "J! J! HARDY!" shouts as he was announced on Sunday meant a little something extra because everybody knew what would be happening.
This sucks, but that's the way it is with the business side of baseball. Sooner or later, somebody's going to get old enough that they're not good enough - or if they don't do that before they become a free agent, then they'll be too expensive to afford. Hardy may be the first one on everyone's minds right now, but he's not the only one who will fall into this category over the next year.
Another one coming up soon was in action on Sunday as well: Chris Tillman. The sting of the idea of the tall righty leaving for elsewhere isn't as great after having watched him pitch in 2017. It'll still be weird if there's an Orioles team without him. The only four winning O's seasons in the 2000s are the four best seasons of Tillman's career. He's not the only reason for that success, but he's a reason.
This time next year, we'll be thinking the same sorts of things, potentially, about Zach Britton and Adam Jones. Manny Machado is going to be a free agent as well, and that will be tough to handle too, but he's not quite the same case. I'm talking about players who the wisdom of re-signing may be questionable due to either age concerns, performance concerns, or both.
Why shouldn't the Orioles just keep re-signing their veteran players forever? There are three glaring examples of this on the team right now. More people were excited when the Orioles retained Chris Davis after he became a free agent than will admit it now. The same is true to a lesser extent of Darren O'Day and lesser still of Mark Trumbo.
There were reasons to find each of those deals appealing at the time. After all, at the time they were being signed, the freshest example available was a player they let walk who they regretted having done so: Nelson Cruz, getting on base and obliterating baseballs in Seattle more than even his pleasant surprise season in Baltimore in 2014. How could they possibly make that same mistake a second time?
Or at least, that's what it seemed like the team was thinking as they inked Davis to the biggest deal in team history fresh off of his 47 homer season in 2015. And even if you were worried about the long-term ramifications of the seven year contract to Davis, there was at least the assurance that Davis would probably be fine in the early years of the contract, before the free agent exodus after the 2018 season.
Davis has batted just .219/.323/.445 in the two seasons since signing that contract. As most of the rest of MLB is hitting home runs at a record-setting pace, Davis is going to hit the fewest home runs in a full season since being traded to Baltimore. The high-paid slugger is one of the only ones who didn't get that memo.
There was the supposed reason, last year, of a mystery hand injury Davis dealt with most of the season that healed (the beat writers said, in spring training) over the offseason. I don't know what the explanation is for this year, where he's homering less than ever and striking out at a higher rate than ever. I do know that the Orioles owe Davis $115 million after this year. It's not pretty.
It's a less severe problem with O'Day because he's only owed another $18 million after this year. After his 2012-15 stretch, the O's surely viewed O'Day as indispensable. Between his pitching and all of the stories about his bullpen leadership, why wouldn't he be?
Yet I'm sure the Orioles were hoping for better than ERAs in the high 3s for their money. Both O'Day's 2016 and 2017 ERAs are higher than his ERA in 2014 and 2015 added together. Beware paying for years after age 30. The farther from 30, the more to beware. O'Day turns 35 next month.
Is it any different for Trumbo? After he hit 47 home runs last season, the O's front office must have thought they were getting a steal bringing him back for three more years for only $37.5 million. In year one, when he's still just 31, he has a .688 OPS, with the lowest on-base percentage as well as slugging percentage of his career. Hindsight afforded by Trey Mancini's 2017 performance is another strike against the re-signing.
Trumbo is suspected, by persuasive though circumstantial evidence, of being the reason that post-game pies were once again halted. It may be a coincidence that the Orioles are 5-15 since Trumbo abruptly truncated a post-game interview after being pied in the face. It may not be.
The Orioles haven't gotten every one of these keep/let go decisions wrong over the last couple of years. The Nationals probably felt like they were getting one over on the Orioles when they signed Matt Wieters. What they got is a career-worst .631 OPS from Wieters and a $10.5 million player option for next year that he'll surely exercise. The joke is decidedly on them. Wei-Yin Chen is another where the O's moved on at the right time.
With Hardy, the only thing the Orioles should be offering him now is to induct him into the team Hall of Fame in a decade or so. In a year's time, perhaps the same will be true for Jones or Britton.
My heart wants Jones to be an Oriole forever. He is my favorite current Oriole. There is no close second place. But in another year, he'll be 33. He probably already shouldn't be in center field any more. If a next Jones contract turns into the next Trumbo contract, the Orioles will not be in a good place.
Our guys won't always be our guys. That's just the way it goes. Hardy and Tillman's possible departures in a month, as well as those of Jones and Britton (and Machado, sigh) in another year are the latest reminder that eventually, there will be no more 2012 or 2014 playoff Orioles on the team.
That'll be a sad day when it happens. If the Orioles are able to build a continuously successful franchise, we'll have new playoffs to celebrate and won't have to spend much time dwelling about it. Maybe next year.