Mike Elias didn’t take the bait.
He could have. He could have noticed the flukey nature of this season and expanded playoff field, and thought this was the time to strike. He could have seen the Orioles’ hotter-than-expected start to the season, and decided to toss patience to the side to chase the dream of a playoff run.
He could have done that. He didn’t. And it was the right move.
Any question about how the Orioles would approach the trade deadline was answered over the weekend and then again on Monday. Gone are Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro, the team’s best power arms out of the bullpen. Also packing his bags was Tommy Milone, the Opening Day starter who was only 1-4 but had a decent 3.99 ERA across six starts.
With those pitchers gone, it’s hard to see the second half going as well as the first half did for Baltimore, which was at .500 as late as Aug. 23. And that’s fine.
It’s fine because that was always the plan. And Elias is just sticking to the plan.
It would be understandable if Elias entertained the idea of calling an audible. Especially when he saw things like a strong bullpen taking form and a fairly formidable lineup materializing, led by Jose Iglesias, Renato Nunez, Hanser Alberto and breakout seasons from Anthony Santander and Pedro Severino. Those five have a combined .308 batting average and a .875 OPS. Elias could have seen that and wondered what one more bat or arm could do.
He could have had that thought when he saw the Orioles sitting at 11-7, fresh off of impressive series against supposed contenders in Washington and Philadelphia. He could have seen division rivals like Boston, Toronto and (for a while) Tampa Bay looking vulnerable. He could have remembered that eight teams will make the American League playoffs this season, done the math and realized that the Orioles could play .500 ball the rest of the way and get in. He could have figured “Maybe this team is further along than we thought.” Or “Maybe they can sneak up on teams.” Or “Maybe this team has a fun season ahead of it.”
He could have just gotten tired of losing. After 108 losses last season, which followed 114 the year before that, the Orioles suddenly had people starting to buy into the Charm City Cinderellas. As the man brought in to bring winning baseball back to Baltimore, Elias could have sprung for the chance to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner even earlier than expected.
He could have done that. He didn’t. And today, the Orioles are better off going forward for it.
It’s true that the Orioles made his job easier for him. If Elias was on the fence about playing for the present rather than the future, his team did a good job of dashing those thoughts by losing first six straight games, and then after back-to-back wins, losing five more in a row. The Orioles now are 15-19. They’ve shown themselves to be pretenders, as far as any playoff talk is concerned.
They’re better than expected, sure. They’re more fun to watch than we figured they’d be. And maybe the rebuild is farther along than anticipated. But they’re closer to being the team everyone expected to finish well out of contention than some American League dark horse.
But Elias could have still let hope get the best of him. He could have remembered how good the Orioles looked earlier in August and talked himself into the lift that one star player could provide. And in the process, he could have undone some of the progress from a full two years of rebuilding.
Instead, Elias kept building. By trading Givens, the Orioles got shortstop Terrin Vavra and corner infielder Tyler Nevin from the Rockies. Those players are now the 13th and 23rd highest-rated prospects, respectively, in the Orioles’ system, according to MLB.com. Vavra has impressed at the plate, and helps Baltimore’s lack of organizational depth at shortstop. Nevin was a high draft pick who could have a breakout in front of him.
By trading Castro, the Orioles got the Mets’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in Kevin Smith, who had a 3.45 ERA at the Double-A level and is one of the team’s brightest pitching prospects.
Either way, it’s a great return for a pair of relievers, one 30 years old and the other hard-throwing but inconsistent. And they’re just the kinds of moves the Orioles should be making.
Credit to Elias for sticking to the plan. Even while a season of unusual circumstances likely made it tempting to take a detour.