On Saturday, the two year anniversary passed of the day that the Orioles officially launched into the rebuilding era by trading their star player, Manny Machado, to the Dodgers. The trade netted the Orioles five players in return, of whom four remain in the organization: Outfielder Yusniel Diaz, infielder Rylan Bannon, starting pitcher Dean Kremer, and reliever Zach Pop.
It’s easy enough, once a general manager is no longer with a team, to look back on some of his worst decisions and ignore some of his better decisions and rate him as one of the greatest idiots to ever walk the earth. For former Orioles GM Dan Duquette, who made those fateful July 2018 deals, this judgment began from a segment of fans long before he lost his job.
The Machado trade is not yet a bust. It is also not yet a smashing success. The 2020 performance from this group of players would have probably gone a long way to figuring out whether the fire sale of 2018 would be remembered the same way we remember Syd Thrift’s poor moves in 2000 or whether the deals might be more fondly recalled the way that Andy MacPhail’s trades of Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada are remembered.
The world of baseball prospects is one of many things that has been put on hold by the globe-spanning disruption caused by COVID-19. There will be no minor league season to judge how any of these guys look against Triple-A competition. On the scale of problems in the world, this is irrelevant. On the scale of things that will impact the near future of the Orioles, the success of the trades is something that matters very much.
Revisiting the initial reaction
In the days leading up to the All-Star break in 2018, I tried to familiarize myself with the top 15 prospects in each of the farm systems of the rumored Machado suitors. Whatever happens, I figured, the Orioles are going to get multiple guys off of one of these lists, so this way I won’t see the trade and think, “Who the hell are these guys?”
This is what I wrote about Dodgers prospects. As an aside, 2018 Mark was idiotically optimistic about Chance Sisco in gauging Dodgers catching prospects like Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz. Let’s ignore that for now. The O’s traded for one guy in this post, Diaz. The rest still gave a “Who the hell are these guys?” reaction. For the big, big trade that was going to kick everything off, it didn’t feel like an encouraging beginning.
Two years later, Diaz was not the most exciting name who you could have imagined for a possible headliner. I’d rather have had Gavin Lux, Dustin May, Smith, or Alex Verdugo than Diaz. Whether any of these players was available is something only Duquette will know. It’s possible that by waiting until July 2018 to trade Machado - instead of the offseason before, or even in July 2017 - the window for top, top talent being part of the trade closed.
The Dodgers did eventually trade Verdugo as part of the swap that got them Mookie Betts this past offseason, which it turns out will be a rental for even fewer games than they got from Machado, not that anyone could have predicted that at the time.
At the same time, there are some other names in that post whose stock sank a lot and at present it seems for the best that the O’s didn’t try to include now-fallen prospects like DJ Peters, Jeren Kendall, and Mitchell White in the haul. Duquette’s O’s seem to have done well in pushing for a pitcher like Kremer rather than some of these other guys.
When the Orioles completed the Machado trade, Diaz was 21 years old and in the middle of a Double-A season where he was batting .314/.428/.477 through 59 games. The upward trajectory was halted not long after the trade; he finished the season hitting just .239/.329/.403 with the Baysox as the Orioles set about tinkering with his swing.
You could find fans during spring training 2019 who wanted to see Diaz on the Opening Day roster. He was sent to minor league camp early and Diaz didn’t even make the Triple-A roster. Mike Elias sent him back for more Double-A time. Diaz struggled out of the gate and had his 2019 season interrupted by a hamstring injury, though he did ultimately post a more-than-respectable .262/.332/.475 batting line in 76 Double-A games last year.
An .807 OPS from a 22-year-old outfielder in an injury-plagued Double-A season is a lot less interesting than a .905 OPS from a 21-year-old outfielder in the first half of a Double-A season.
Diaz is a part of the Orioles 60-man player pool, which means he’ll be in the group doing work at Bowie while the MLB team is playing out its abbreviated season. Hopefully he can make strides and keep himself in the conversation of being part of the outfield for the next good Orioles team.
Kremer, a 2016 draftee by the Dodgers, was among the players the Orioles chose to add to the 40-man roster over the previous offseason in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. This was something of a no-brainer, as Kremer has a long track record of striking batters out in the minors, racking up 431 in 356.2 innings as a pro. That included 122 strikeouts in 113.1 innings between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk in 2019 and even continued into the Arizona Fall League.
At Fangraphs, Eric Longenhagen rated Kremer as the #11 prospect in the Orioles system back in February:
Kremer’s repertoire is well-composed but relies on location to generate whiffs because his raw stuff isn’t nasty enough to miss when he makes mistakes. He doesn’t make many of them though, and his fastball still played against good Fall League hitters even when he sat 90-92 there. If that isn’t sustainable more than twice through an order, perhaps Kremer will move to some kind of valuable long relief role eventually.
One of the common things Elias said about Orioles prospects last year is that he thinks minor league performance is important to see in order to project what a player can do.
The 2020 season was going to be a crucial one for answering how Kremer would look against Triple-A competition. If he was able to keep striking out at least a batter per inning, that would have been interesting indeed. Instead, the O’s will have to judge Kremer based on how he looks at the secondary camp in Bowie and then decide how much Triple-A time he will get assuming the 2021 season can ramp up with no hiccups.
In one of those “baseball is a small world” connections, Bannon was college teammates with fellow O’s prospect Zac Lowther, both drafted from Xavier University in 2017. Lowther was picked six rounds earlier than Bannon. These 2017 draftees will be Rule 5 eligible in just a few months. Bannon hasn’t cracked the 60-man player pool for this season, so unlike the above two guys, the Orioles won’t be working with him in person this year.
A trait that was shared by the players in this trade is that at the time the Orioles acquired them, they were performing - at least from the batting and pitching lines - ahead of where their prospect stock would suggest. Bannon was hitting an eye-popping .296/.402/.559 in 89 games for High-A Rancho Cucamonga, in a league that is a notorious hitters league. The O’s promoted him to Bowie after the trade and that California League success didn’t immediately translate, as he hit .204/.344/.327 in 32 games to close out the 2018 season.
That’s not a great batting line at all, but it does come with an interesting walk rate - 22 walks in 122 plate appearances. In most of a season at Bowie in 2019, he continued to walk at a solid clip, with 47 walks in 444 plate appearances and a .740 OPS overall. I would have liked to see what he could do in a full year at Norfolk this year - he batted .317/.344/.549 in a 20-game stint there to close out the 2019 season.
Bannon is probably not a true utility infield candidate since he’s never played shortstop. He does play both second base and third base regularly. Hopefully he continues to show enough to where the O’s keep him in the picture going forward.
Pop was another 2017 draftee, taken by the Dodgers one round a head of Bannon, and the O’s choice about whether or not to protect him from the coming Rule 5 draft could be an even tougher one, since Pop had Tommy John surgery last May. With no minor league action in 2020, they just won’t have much recent information to go off of. He has only gotten to pitch 32 innings in the Orioles organization, and just 10.1 innings since Elias and company took over.
One immediate reaction to the Machado trade came from Fangraphs, where Pop was described as profiling “like a right-handed version of Zack Britton.” That’s an attention-getter. So was Pop’s 0.33 ERA at Rancho Cucamonga at the time the O’s traded for him. Even in the hitters league his stuff was absurdly dominant. It shouldn’t be that hard to find 40-man space for him just in case he can come back and keep developing like he had been.
Two years earlier than this, the Yankees and Cubs made a significant trade that brought Aroldis Chapman to Chicago and mega-prospect Gleyber Torres to the Yankees. It turned out that was not the regular, ongoing trade deadline price for a rest-of-season rental of a superstar player.
Whether Duquette turned down some other trade where a better prospect than Yusniel Diaz was available is also not something that the public can know. Shame on him if he did.
The big trade that kicked off the rebuilding era of the Orioles is still a “wait and see” thing two years later. Hopefully by time we’ve waited, what we see is an important part of a better Orioles future. It’s nice to dream, but no one should hold their breath.