The prodigal son returns today. Just imagine if the prodigal son stuck around.
Of course, that wasn’t going to happen. It was a matter of time until the Orioles dealt Manny Machado. And fun as he was to watch, with the Orioles in the midst of a historically bleak season, there were few fans hoping for him to stick around.
That doesn’t mean fans were happy with how the trade came to be. And it wasn’t the first time in recent years they had had an opportunity to moan and groan at the front office.
In Baltimore, personnel faux pas have become sort of a trend, with either the wrong players getting shipped out, the wrong players being brought in, or the circumstances around even sensible moves proving to be the real mistake. There are several moves in just the past decade a fan can point to as examples; here are the five biggest errors:
5) Jake Arrieta traded to the Cubs, 2013
There’s no way for this one not to be on the list. Arrieta was dealt to Chicago by a team that had become a playoff contender, and was a pitcher or two away from being a real threat. One year later, Arrieta had become that pitcher. Two years later, he was a Cy Young winner.
And the Orioles’ return? Scott Feldman (5-6, 4.27 ERA in his only year in Baltimore) and Steve Clevenger, a part-time catcher.
So Baltimore gave up a Cy Young winner for, basically, nothing. So why isn’t this higher on the list?
Because Arrieta was never going to be that guy in Baltimore. This wasn’t someone who was making progress and the Orioles got impatient. He was getting worse, and at 27, there were no signs he was figuring it out.
Whether it’s an indictment on coaching, on Arrieta, on Camden Yards, whatever, the solution wasn’t coming here. Arrieta was going to be out of baseball before he became an ace in Baltimore. But that doesn’t prevent his departure from being looked at as one of the most lopsided deals in recent years.
4) Nelson Cruz leaves in free agency, 2015
This didn’t have to happen. Cruz arrived in 2014 and immediately injected life into the team. An O’s squad that had fallen short of the playoffs rolled to the division title and into the ALCS, and Cruz’s league-leading 40 home runs were a big reason.
After the season, Cruz said he wanted to stay. The Orioles said they wanted him to stay. And then Cruz left, signing for four years and $57 million with Seattle.
It wasn’t a bank-breaking deal, and the Orioles reportedly gave Cruz a three-year offer, so they weren’t afraid of signing up for multiple years of a then-34-year-old designated hitter. It was just that extra year, and considering that the O’s were still in their competitive window, it was a painful departure.
Baltimore missed the playoffs in 2015 and fell in the American League Wild Card game in 2016. Meanwhile, Cruz hit 44 home runs in 2015, 43 in 2016, and then 39 and 37. That power could have made the Orioles an even fiercer offensive team, and one with even better playoff prospects.
3) Manny Machado traded late, 2018
Trading Machado wasn’t the mistake. Once the Orioles began to see their playoff window shut, it was a given that Machado wasn’t going to stay with $300 million or more potentially awaiting him on the market. When Baltimore made the move on July 18, 2018, there were few O’s fans shouting for the team not to pull the trigger.
That’s because they were already hoarse from calling for the team to do it sooner.
In 2017, the Orioles went 72-90 with an aging core, and it was clear that serious contention - not just .500 or better, but an actual World Series run - was no longer viable. It was also clear that the time had come to deal Machado, who was 25 and, with a full year left on his contract, could have fetched an excellent haul of prospects.
The exact point the team should have dealt him - either at the deadline, when they were 50-54, or in the offseason after a frantic playoff push had failed - is up for debate. What isn’t is that the Orioles bled themselves dry by holding onto Machado in the hopes of a competitive 2018.
We know the rest of the story. The Orioles collapsed and became the worst team in baseball, and everyone wondered what on earth a terrible team was doing sending its best trade chip out to play shortstop every night.
April, May, June and half of July passed before the Orioles finally dealt their star. They received five prospects, three of which are now among their top 21, but only Yusniel Diaz was considered a top 100 prospect in Major League Baseball, and the Orioles didn’t land that blue-chip player who could slide in immediately as the centerpiece of a rebuild.
Compare that to when the White Sox moved Chris Sale early and received a bundle of players including Yoan Moncada, heralded as perhaps the best prospect in the game. The Orioles don’t appear to have gotten that player, and their rebuild could take a hit because of it.
2) Chris Davis re-signed, 2016
No need to go into much detail about this one. Since being re-signed after the 2015 season, when he led all of baseball in home runs for the second time in three years, Davis has plummeted into laughingstock status, batting .199 with 85 homers compared to 679 strikeouts, and brought the team with him.
Davis’s seven-year, $161 million deal is considered one of baseball’s biggest albatrosses. There have been heftier deals, but few, if any, have received less return.
1) Nick Markakis leaves in free agency, 2015
I’ll come clean. This is a personal pick. Davis’s deal, by all objective reasoning, is the worst move the Orioles have made, perhaps in all of their 65 years. It’s one that hasn’t stopped hurting the Orioles since it was handed out, and its damage isn’t done yet.
But there was something about Markakis leaving that just...felt...wrong.
If Adam Jones was the team’s emotional leader, Markakis was its heart. He played hard and well, and his clutch hitting and ability to work counts made him an ideal table-setter for Baltimore’s power-hitting lineup. He was a Buck Showalter favorite, and an icon in the city. When a broken hand forced him to miss the long-awaited playoff run in 2012, fans were heartbroken for him. When he was caught on the videoboard gleefully smiling after the Orioles won the division in 2014, it became the season’s signature image.
So why is he in Atlanta? Why were four years and $45 million enough to take away someone who should still be playing in Baltimore, and who should have ended up retiring in Baltimore?
The move hurt emotionally, but it also hurt on the field. In his four full seasons in Atlanta, Markakis has batted .284 with a .359 on-base percentage and an average of 40 doubles a year. Meanwhile, the Orioles’ lineup slipped into a collection of strikeout-happy all-or-nothing swingers, and there was a need for someone who could work a count, get on base and start a rally.
The Orioles had that exact player. And they let him go. And who knows, if he stays, maybe Baltimore is a little less inclined to give money to the other competitor for the top spot on this list.