This article is not about to make an attempt at convincing you that the 2020 Baltimore Orioles are, in fact, a “good” baseball team. That conversation involves drawing a whole bunch of conclusions from what is an incredibly small sample size in the weirdest MLB season in recent memory. Things could get messy. What might be more interesting is to consider how the Orioles front office is thinking about this moment.
Saying that the Orioles entered 2020 with “tanking” in mind doesn’t seem entirely fair. But they certainly focused their offseason efforts beyond the campaign on the horizon, choosing to trade away veterans like Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Villar in favor of question marks up and down the roster. The projected squad looked bleak, and the loss of star Trey Mancini to a cancer diagnosis in mid-March was difficult to handle in more ways than one.
While even the worst teams can get hot in short stretches, the cream generally rises to the top over the typical 162-game MLB season. It was safe to assume the Orioles were en route for another 100-loss season and a favorable draft pick.
Then the spread of the novel coronavirus brought the world to a halt, including professional sports. MLB and the Player’s Association scrambled, and publicly bungled, negotiations for weeks on what a revised schedule would look like. Finally, it was announced that teams would play a 60-game set-up. Shortly thereafter, the playoff format was edited. The normal 10-team field would be expanded to 16.
Suddenly, what was required to be a playoff team turned on its head. With more than half of the teams getting into the tournament, a .500 record (or worse) is likely enough to earn a spot. The Orioles might be able to do that, especially in an abbreviated season. The odds were still long, but slightly better than they would have been with a full slate of games.
Fast forward to August 9, and the Orioles sit right at .500 (7-7) with nearly a quarter of the season behind them and the trade deadline just three weeks away. For what it’s worth, FanGraphs has increased the team’s odds of making the playoffs from 1.4% on Opening Day to 8.0% today. Of course, there is quite a bit of baseball between now and the end of the month, but all scenarios have to be considered.
The restrictions placed upon a season being held in the midst of a pandemic may make this an easier decision for Mike Elias and company. As the Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli pointed out last month when pondering a potential trade of veteran pitcher Alex Cobb, attempting to deal could prove difficult.
For starters, there’s the rule that only players who are designated on a club’s 60-man player pool can be traded. This can be particularly stifling for a few reasons. First, most teams only have their top prospects and close-to-the-majors depth at their secondary sites, same as the Orioles do.
It’s difficult to envision that a contender would part with a valuable depth piece amid the uncertainty that comes with every-other-day tests for COVID-19. It’s also tough to envision parting with a top prospect for a rotation piece when starters are less important in the playoffs and half the league will be playing in October anyway.
The vast majority, if not all, of the teams in the league are likely to be within arm’s length of a playoff spot by the time August 31 rolls around. It’s possible that only a handful feel comfortable “buying” in such a volatile season, but many more could simply stand pat.
Should the Orioles choose to pursue trade options in the weeks to come, it begs several questions. Like, what type of player do they feel “puts them over the top?” And more importantly, what would they be willing to sacrifice in order to get such a player?
The club’s 60-man player pool includes most of their notable minor leaguers, so there is plenty that other teams would find appealing. However, the likelihood of the Orioles pulling the trigger on a trade involving a name like Grayson Rodriguez or DL Hall feels remote.
Elias, the Orioles GM, has been consistent in saying that his goal is to build a “pipeline” of talent from the team’s farm system up to Baltimore. While the organization has made positive strides since the new regime was hired prior to the 2019 season, they still remain a step or two behind the game’s elite talent developers.
What’s more possible could be a swap of a once interesting prospect, like DJ Stewart, Cedric Mullins or Cody Carroll, that has struggled at the highest level in exchange for some sort of veteran depth piece. But even still, that would be a tough pill to swallow for the Orioles, giving up affordable, controllable pieces with remaining upside for a player that only makes the team marginally better.
The most obvious way that Orioles can improve in the present without adversely impacting their future is to simply promote the players in their system that are ready for the show. Perhaps that has already started with left-handed pitcher Keegan Akin getting the call on Saturday.
Other logical options currently working out at the team’s alternative site in Bowie include left fielder Ryan Mountcastle and pitcher Dean Kremer. Even names like outfielder Yusniel Diaz, southpaw Bruce Zimmermann and righty Isaac Mattson could be in play if the team really wants to push things.
If the Orioles have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs they should do what they can to make that more likely. They don’t have to (and shouldn’t) sell the farm to do it.