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How long should the Orioles continue to put their top talent up for sale?

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Trading established players is the mark of a rebuilding team, which the Orioles are. But when does it become time to start keeping them to support the new foundation?

Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It’s become as much a part of the season as Christmas trees and Mariah Carey. The end of Thanksgiving means the arrival of December, and the arrival of December means Oriole trade talk.

Ever since the Orioles’ playoff-contending core expired like a carton of bad milk in 2018, the winters have been about which players at the major league level could be pawned off to help the full-steam ahead rebuild effort. It looks like 2021 is no different, as John Means, who looked like a Cy Young possibility early in the year, and MVP candidate Cedric Mullins are reportedly on the market for teams looking to make a deal.

And now the question becomes, when does it become time for the strategy to start to change, and for the goal to be keeping good players around to help out the wave of players that will be coming?

Early on, it was easy. When the bottom fell out in that 2018 season, the Orioles were in for a long process of working their way back, so the Manny Machados and Jonathan Schoops and Darren O’Days and Kevin Gausmans were instantly expendable since they weren’t going to be around for the next Baltimore team that won again.

Ditto players like Andrew Cashner and Jonathan Villar during and after 2019. And Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro in 2020. If players had a strong season to bump up their trade value, or were facing a rise in pay in their contracts, it made all the sense for the world for the Orioles to cash in their chips, take the short-term hit and do what they could to strengthen for the future.

Obviously, though, this can’t go forever. You can’t keep building for “later”; eventually, a “now” has to arrive.

And as the wave of talent the Orioles have been building gets closer and closer, it gets dicier and dicier to assume the time to start building in Baltimore, rather than Bowie, hasn’t arrived.

Ryan Mountcastle has arrived and, with 33 home runs and 89 RBI this past season, all but proven he’s here to stay. Adley Rutschman, baseball’s No. 1 prospect not in the majors yet, is going to be there this season, and very well may be behind the plate opening day. No. 2 and 3 prospects Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall, who have looked good at every stop they’ve made in their minor league careers, are likely to join them this year, according to MLB.com’s top prospects list.

So the cavalry, as Dave Trembley liked to call it back in the day, is not just coming. It’s starting to arrive.

And here the Orioles are, reportedly listening for offers on Mullins, who was ninth in the MVP voting, and Means, their best pitcher. Trey Mancini, who came back from cancer to re-establish himself as a middle-of-the-order bat, is supposedly for sale as well.

It’s just like 2018 and ’19 in that regard. Should it be?

The Orioles have been remarkably patient through all of this, even while national media have thrown the “tanking” word around and pointed to them as the reason change is needed to incentivize winning in Major League Baseball, but it’s understandable why. It does no good to hit the stop button on a rebuild and assume you’re ready to start winning too early. That’s how teams contend for a little while, then fade, win 77 games and ultimately go back to their losing ways.

But at the same time, the Orioles need to know when its time to stop hacking talent off their roster and start making sure there’s a supporting cast of good players around the incoming foundation. Mountcastle and Rutschman and Rodriguez have been the foundation of the Next Great Orioles Team since they first entered the pipeline, so if they’re here or about to be, a focus on winning should be as well.

If Mullins and Means and Mancini and Anthony Santander get traded for players who could help by 2025 or 2026, well, by then, Rutschman will be 27 or 28, Mountcastle will be 28 or 29. Given Mike Elias’s background, the Orioles project often gets compared to the Astros rebuild, which featured Carlos Correa, George Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman as the foundation. They were 20, 25, 25 and 21 when Houston first returned to the playoffs. Dallas Keuchel, that team’s Cy Young Award winner, was 27.

This is all to say that the Orioles don’t want to continue biding their time while Mountcastle, Rutschman and Rodriguez start thriving on middling teams. They should aim to be competitive when those players hit their peaks.

If Mullins and Means were 32, then this would be a no-brainer. The new core might need, say, two years to hit their stride, and Mullins and Means could have regressed by then. But Mullins is 27. Means turns 29 early next year. Mancini will be 30 when it starts. Santander is 27. They’re either part of the next winner, or the standouts of the tail end of the rebuilding phase.

The time has come for the Orioles to think about which one it is.