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Looking back on the Orioles Kevin Gausman trade return, one year later

One year ago tomorrow, the Orioles traded Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to the Braves. The trade isn’t bearing much fruit yet.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies
A familiar face with a familiar pose in a different uniform.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

When July trade deadline day arrived for the Orioles last year, the big ones were already out of the way. Manny Machado and Zack Britton, two of the O’s biggest pending free agents, were dealt earlier in the month. Those were the obvious ones to trade to kick off a move into a rebuilding phase.

Still unknown was how much the Orioles would be looking to trade players who had years of team control remaining beyond 2018. Would the Dan Duquette-led Orioles embrace that this was going to be a multi-year rebuilding plan, or would the team veer into a probably-misguided idea that things could be quickly fixed? As late as 90 minutes before last year’s deadline, it was unclear which future the Orioles were imagining.

With the minutes counting down until the deadline, the Orioles swung two more deals, sending Kevin Gausman to the Braves, and Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers. That Gausman was traded even though he had team control remaining for the 2019 and 2020 seasons was the biggest indicator that the team was really, truly going to be embracing a long-term rebuilding project. Not that Duquette kept his job as the one in charge of the project for very long after the deadline day deals.

Of the four big trades Duquette made last July, the Gausman one was the one that annoyed me the most at the time. The return on the trade felt particularly underwhelming, since the Braves had a bunch of top 100-caliber prospects in their system at the time and the O’s pried loose none of them. The addition of the injured Darren O’Day into the deal seemed to be a pure salary dump. I will always wonder if the Orioles could have gotten better players if they just absorbed the sunk O’Day money themselves.

As for Gausman, the way the 2019 season has played out so far makes it seem like the Orioles may have traded him at about the right time. Although there was a post-trade resurgence for him in 2018 results (2.87 ERA in 10 Braves starts) that renewed my long-held fears about Gausman getting traded and turning into post-Orioles Jake Arrieta, that hasn’t carried over into this year.

Gausman is making $9.35 million in his third bite at the arbitration apple, with a fourth year due to his Super Two status still to come. He has started 15 games and has a 5.97 ERA. He has allowed five or more runs in five of his 15 starts, and missed about a month and a half because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

Is he due for his luck to turn better after a high .338 BABIP? Why has his ERA spiked so much despite his home run rate being in line with career norms? What’s the deal with his ground ball rate dropping to only 37.3% when it’s 43.2% across his whole career? Why is he underperforming his FIP so much? These are Atlanta’s problems now. One Braves beat writer responded to Gausman’s latest clunker by saying Gausman shows how the Braves need to trade for another starter. He also brought up the idea of a bullpen conversion.

If the Orioles had waited until this July to move Gausman, his value only would have been lower than it already was, assuming he performed in a similar way for the Orioles. The pedigree of having once been the #4 overall pick is not worth too much compared to all these seasons of big league performance that has failed to meet that pedigree.

This is something the new regime will have to wrestle with in thinking about trading Dylan Bundy at this deadline. If there’s a future where Bundy looks better, his value goes up in the offseason or next July, but maybe this is as good as he’ll ever be again, and if so, now is the time to deal and get what they can. Unless, as MASN’s Roch Kubatko suggests this morning, his value is so low the O’s might as well just keep trying to make him better.

The trade

Braves get: Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day

Orioles get: LHP Bruce Zimmermann, LHP Evan Phillips, C Brett Cumberland, 3B Jean Carlos Encarnacion, $2.5 million of international signing bonus slots

Bruce Zimmermann

Good luck finding any scouting report on the Baltimore-born Zimmermann, a 24-year-old lefty starter who is not ranked among MLB Pipeline’s top 30 Orioles prospects or Fangraphs’ top 35 Orioles prospects. Even without the Baltimore connection, he would be the most interesting prospect of this trade based on how he’s performed since the deal. That is, he’s the only one who, if you look at his 2019 results, you could say, “Well, maybe he’s something...”

Zimmermann was rolling in 18 games for Double-A Bowie, with 101 strikeouts in 101.1 innings and only 34 walks, just nine home runs allowed, and a 2.58 ERA. Although at 24, he’s a little old for that level, he can only get out the guys they ask him to get out, and he did well there.

That was enough to earn him a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk just a few days ago. It wasn’t a happy Norfolk debut, as Zimmermann was torched for five runs in four innings. Hopefully he can adjust for future starts. One sad reality of following prospects is that every new level is a new chance for a player to bump into a ceiling that he can’t break through.

It’s too early to proclaim that Zimmermann has hit his ceiling. Just don’t be surprised if that’s what happens.

Evan Phillips

Another Maryland connection here, with Phillips being from Salisbury. I doubt Duquette said, “Whatever, just give me all the Maryland guys you have,” because even the brigade of Duquette haters probably don’t think he’s that stupid, though when you also consider the catcher Cumberland sharing a name with a Maryland city, I do wonder about it sometimes.

At the time of the trade last year, Phillips was pitching for the Braves Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate, though he’d gotten a four-game stint at the MLB level in July. There was at least something intriguing about the then-23-year-old righty in that he had struck out 59 batters in 40.2 innings for the Stripers before the trade last season. With only 14 walks in the same time, that can work.

The problem is that looking only at his 2018 Triple-A performance obscures what had been command problems at most other minor league stops. In 2017, he walked 11 batters in 21 innings for Mississippi and 23 batters in 30.1 innings for Gwinnett. It is no surprise, then, that in Phillips’s scattered 26 big league games, he has walked 25 batters in 30 innings. No one can be effective when they’re that wild, so Phillips’s 9.90 big league ERA is also no surprise.

If Phillips can harness the form he had at Gwinnett last year, maybe he will eventually be something other than one more 2019 Orioles reliever who makes fans heave sighs of resignation.

Brett Cumberland

You can find Cumberland boosters out there in the prospect-industrial complex if you look: Fangraphs ranked him as the #12 Orioles prospect before this season and has him at #15 in their most recent update. They think “he’ll be able to catch regularly and also have enough of a bat to contribute at first base, DH, or as a pinch hitter.”

Perhaps Duquette thought so too, what with Cumberland batting .236/.367/.407 in 82 games last year for the High-A Florida Fire Frogs in the Braves organization. That’s not a great batting average, but if a guy walks that much and has a little power to respect, it could work. Of course, he was 23 at High-A when putting up those numbers

In 28 games at Double-A this year, Cumberland batted .239/.369/.370. The Elias regime doesn’t seem as excited about that profile; Cumberland was recently demoted to Frederick after spending about a month on the injured list. It’s not a good sign for a guy to be headed down the ladder at age 24.

Cumberland was originally selected by the Braves with the 2016 draft pick that the Orioles sold to the Braves in exchange for the Braves eating what was left of Brian Matusz’s $3.9 million 2016 salary.

Jean Carlos Encarnacion

The 21-year-old Encarnacion is the youngest player in this deal. Unlike most prospects out of the Dominican Republic, he didn’t sign until he was 18, receiving a small $10,000 bonus from the Braves. Although he signed later than most, the Braves were impressed enough with him by 2018 that he was at a full-season affiliate, Low-A Rome, where he was batting .288/.314/.463 in 97 games until Duquette said, “Give us that guy.”

Encarnacion was hardly the only prospect the O’s acquired last July whose performance dipped immediately after being traded. Assigned to the same level, Low-A Delmarva, Encarnacion finished the season batting .218/.240/.356 for the Shorebirds. In total, he struck out 134 times in 483 plate appearances between the two organizations.

The Elias regime chose to get another look at Encarnacion at Delmarva this year. The level repeat doesn’t have great results, with Encarnacion batting .233/.289/.351 in 94 games for the Shorebirds so far this season. The big strikeouts are still there: He’s striking out 28.3% of the time. It’s tough to project long-term success when a guy already strikes out that much at Delmarva.

International bonus money

Perhaps Duquette imagined that in stocking up this money, he would be able to sign both of the Victor Mesas, and Sandy Gaston, that he would be hailed as a genius, thrown a ticker tape parade, and rewarded with a contract extension to lead the Orioles into the rebuilding era. I certainly wondered if he was going to stick around after he was allowed to make the Gausman and Schoop trades. If the O’s were just going to change GMs, why let the lame duck deal players when a new GM might have a different vision?

I still find that decision puzzling from the ownership. Whatever it was that happened, Duquette lost his job at the end of the season. The result is good, as Elias has never given any reason to believe the franchise is not in good hands now. However, the Mesas and Gaston ended up signing in the interim period between Duquette’s departure and Elias’s hire.

By the time Elias was hired, he was frank about the fact that he couldn’t do much with the money at that point, ultimately using it to collect other teams’ cast-offs like Dwight Smith Jr. and Tom Eshelman. That’s better than getting A-ball nobodies, as Duquette frequently did, and Elias has followed through with real international investment in this signing period. Still, this money had effectively zero value.

That the O’s didn’t get Victor Victor Mesa felt like a great disappointment at the time. Maybe it still will be a disappointment, but for now, his batting line in his age 22 season at High-A Jupiter isn’t the sort of thing to inspire any regrets: .252/.295/.283 in 89 games, with no home runs to date.

**

If Gausman really had followed the Arrieta path of turning into a Cy Young contender almost immediately after being traded, this trade would really burn my biscuits. Instead, the Braves seem to have gotten the same “Why isn’t he better?” guy, or perhaps even a worse version of him.

Dumping O’Day’s salary into this deal remains stupid. I don’t know, maybe Elias is using the $9 million O’Day would have been paid this year, and Gausman’s $9.35 million that the O’s otherwise would have been on the hook for, to make solid investments in the O’s future, and if that’s the case it’s not worthless.

I would have liked a trade with better prospects where the O’s just absorbed the dead money themselves. Maybe Duquette could not get any better deal for Gausman whether O’Day was included or not. I’ll never know that either. What I do know is that right now it looks like the best hope for getting any real MLB contribution from this trade rests with a 24-year-old starting pitcher whose one Triple-A start to date went very badly. That stinks.