The thing that hung over the Orioles organization more than anything else in the first half of last season was uncertainty. Once the team started out as awfully as they did, a series of trades before the deadlines were inevitable. Still unknown were all of the specifics: Who would be traded? When would the trades go down? What would the Orioles be able to get in return? And looming even bigger over all of these, who was going to be in charge of the team in the future?
That Manny Machado was going to be traded was always obvious even in the middle of that uncertainty. When the Orioles were 8-20 by the end of April, there was no doubt about what was going to happen to him. One year ago today, with then-GM Dan Duquette waiting until the day after the All-Star Game, the first of the Orioles trade dominoes fell as they traded Machado to the Dodgers.
Dodgers get: Manny Machado
Orioles get: OF Yusniel Diaz, IF Rylan Bannon, RHP Dean Kremer, RHP Zach Pop, IF Breyvic Valera
The Cuban outfielder was just 21 years old at the time of the trade. He remains the most interesting player out of any of the ones the Orioles got in their July 2018 trades by virtue of being the only one who was and is generally rated on top 100 prospect lists. His prospect stock has taken a bit of a hit in rankings that have updated during the season. Diaz began the season as MLB Pipeline’s #64 prospect in the game and now is their #90 prospect.
A big reason why Diaz was the most exciting player the O’s acquired was how he had been hitting for the Dodgers Double-A Tulsa affiliate at the time of the deal: .314/.428/.477 in 59 games. Assigned to Bowie after the trade, reality set in and Diaz finished the year batting .239/.329/.403 in 38 games there.
There were fans, including me in my less rational moments, who wanted to see Diaz on the Opening Day roster. GM Mike Elias has stuck to his guns about minor league performance being worth more than spring training stats and so it was back to Bowie for Diaz to keep proving himself. Unfortunately, he didn’t really do this to start the season, posting a .651 OPS in April before landing on the injured list with a hamstring issue.
Things have gone a lot better for Diaz since returning from that injury. He’s improved his batting line for the season to .252/.336/.476, with nine home runs in his 55 Bowie games. That’s a solid boost after that tough start, though he has still struck out 53 times in 206 at-bats, more than you want to see from a Double-A player.
One split that may be worth noting: This season, the righty-batting Diaz has reverse splits, batting better against righty pitchers than lefties. That’s a departure from previous seasons, so it could just be a fluke for this year.
There was an immediate drop-off in the rankings of prospects in this trade after Diaz. He was the #4 prospect in the Dodgers system at the time of the trade. Bannon was the next-best-ranked in that system at #27. Anyone’s dreams of a collecting multiple big prospects were dashed.
A common thread of these players the Orioles got from the Dodgers is that they were performing in ways that seemed to exceed their prospect stock. It’s fair to wonder if the O’s were targeting these players with the thinking that they were getting them before the league caught up to their value. I’m less certain that it was a good strategy.
Bannon, 22 at the time of the trade, was batting .296/.402/.559 in 89 games for the Dodgers High-A Rancho Cucamonga affiliate. This league is recognized as a hitter-friendly league, and that’s shown itself in how Bannon performed after getting bumped to Double-A Bowie post-trade, with a .204/.344/.327 batting line in his final 32 games.
The OBP is notable even with a poor batting average. That skill has continued to show itself this season, with Bannon now sporting a .356 OBP for the season. The High-A power bump has not carried up to Double-A. He had 20 homers in 89 games for Rancho Cucamonga and has homered just six times for the Baysox this year. One good thing that’s happened for Bannon this year is he’s cut his strikeout rate, going from 25.6% pre-trade last year to 16.1% so far this season. Walking a lot and not striking out much usually means good things will come.
Where does that add up for a player who has split time between second and third base as a minor leaguer? Probably to him having to continue to prove his batting ability at Triple-A Norfolk in 2020. If Bannon shows he can hit against better competition, there will be a place for him in MLB during this rebuilding project and maybe even when the team starts getting good.
Since being drafted in the 14th round by the Dodgers in 2016, Kremer has always had a good strikeout rate. That was true even as he struggled at High-A in 2017, striking out 96 batters in 80 innings even when he had a 5.18 ERA. In 2018, the strikeout rate jumped even more, with Kremer notching 114 strikeouts in 79 innings before the trade - and despite that league being a hitter’s league, he’d lowered his ERA to 3.30.
Unlike Diaz and Bannon, Kremer carried this success over to the Orioles organization somewhat after the trade, striking out 53 batters in 45.1 innings up a level at Bowie and posting a 2.58 ERA. Of all of the pitchers the O’s acquired last July, I was most interested in seeing how Kremer handled this season.
Instead, Kremer hurt his oblique during the lead-up to the season and didn’t make his way back to Bowie until May 21. His 3.76 ERA isn’t the most exciting you’ll find in the Bowie rotation, and gone are the gaudy strikeout totals. Kremer has 52 strikeouts in 55 innings this year. It’s respectable but not eye-popping. A plus for Kremer is he’s cut the walk rate by more than a third compared to last season, now walking just 7% of batters.
As a right-handed reliever with an unusual arm slot, Pop was labeled on Fangraphs immediately after the trade as someone who “profiles, at least stylistically, like a right-handed version of Zack Britton.” Exciting words!
If Pop has that in his future, it’s going to have to wait. He had to get Tommy John surgery in early May, so he’s out for the rest of the season and probably most of next season too. Good luck to him in his recovery. After he started out this season for Bowie with a 0.84 ERA in 10.2 innings, I wanted to see more of what he had to offer. My being interested in a prospect is not an automatic curse, although I do wonder sometimes.
In the lead-up to the trade, I assumed that any player the Orioles might acquire in a Machado deal who had some MLB service time would be little more than a throw-in. Valera, already 26 at the time of the trade, fit this bill. He was a utility infielder at best and the Elias regime decided in January that they had no use for him. Of the 15 players acquired last July, Valera’s the only one out of the organization already.
Valera is one of the poster boys for Triple-A using juiced MLB baseballs this season. The Yankees picked him up off waivers from the Giants in May and Valera was batting .333/.402/.536 in 53 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre headed into Wednesday’s action.
As much as Machado had meant to Orioles fans since the 2012 season, the fact was that his acquisition was going to be for a rental of about two-and-a-half months, plus any playoffs. The market that let the Yankees get Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016 didn’t really exist any more. Teams were holding top prospects closer.
Was there a better deal sitting out there for Duquette if he had either evaluated teams’ offered prospects better, or if he had been a more shrewd negotiator in recognizing who was really desperate to get Machado onto their team? We’re never going to know for sure. There were better-rated Dodgers prospects out there than Diaz, and by apparently prioritizing players whose 2018 stats exceeded their consensus prospect pedigree, other opportunities may have been missed.
Until some of these players start bearing fruit at the MLB level, it’s going to be hard not to wonder what else could have happened. There’s little doubt in retrospect that Machado ought to have been traded in July 2017 instead, when his value to other teams was greater due to his having more time before becoming a free agent.
There’s no point lamenting the decisions that led the O’s to where they are right now. Duquette has lost his job. It’s just too bad there’s such a mess for Elias to clean up. If the O’s are able to get some solid contributions from these players in the Machado deal, Elias will have that much less work to do to build the next good Orioles team. Fans are still waiting for one or more of the Machado prospects to take that big step forward.