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What should the Orioles’ trade deadline strategy be with Trey Mancini?

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The slugger has been the subject of trade debate for a couple of years. But the plot has thickened with the 2021 deadline fast approaching.

2021 T-Mobile Home Run Derby

Trade Trey? Or does Trey stay?

It’s a question the Orioles and their fans have kicked around since the 2019 season. With the O’s in a long-running rebuild, and with Mancini in his second or third year as their biggest bat, it makes sense that this is the dilemma that seems to keep popping up. It’s not quite “when is it time to cut bait with Chris Davis?”, but it’s close.

With this season’s trade deadline less than two weeks away, it’s back on the table. But the plot has thickened. Before, the Orioles could sort of bide their time, and kick the can a little bit. There wasn’t too much urgency.

Now, however, a tough decision looks like it’ll have to be made. The Orioles will have to make the call whether to keep an immensely popular player who is a vital asset to the team — but who may just be a bigger asset somewhere else.

The question is, if you’re the Orioles, whether you keep the best bat in your lineup, or whether you trade him for all the help you can get in stocking up on prospects for the future. Same as it’s always been. But things have changed since we were in this position in 2019.

Mancini’s cancer battle is the most obvious element. With first his diagnosis but then his remarkable recovery as well, Mancini has become the most popular Oriole in recent memory. “Fan favorite” doesn’t do it justice — Mancini has become a role model as a person, particularly since his story went from being one of tragedy to one of heartwarming success.

And here’s another element, one that hasn’t so much changed, but just grown: the Orioles have been bad. Unwatchable at times. As our own Tyler Young wrote recently, it’s all about winning in the long run, but the short run has to reach a certain level of entertainment value. You can say your focus is 2023 or 2024, but you have to put some effort into keeping the fans right now, in order for them to still be interested enough down the road to watch the improved product.

If interest drops off enough, you become irrelevant. That’s never good, even if you’re working on something bigger. The Red Sox, for instance, saw their ratings on NESN drop 54 percent with last year’s 24-36 finish, and though those numbers have bounced back, Boston is one of the most consistent cities in terms of interest in baseball. There are probably a lot of fans who, if the Orioles traded their best hitter and most popular player, would be turned off enough that they would stop following altogether.

So those are some of the reasons you don’t trade Mancini. But the story has changed in a way that would favor a deal too.

The Orioles don’t have the depth in trade chips that they’ve had in the past, and the kind that a team languishing below .500 would hope for. There’s no player having a career year who’s months away from splitting for big money on the free agent market, or a thriving one-year rental a la Nelson Cruz in 2014 that the Orioles were planning from the very beginning to turn into prospects.

There are some names, but they’re lukewarm targets. Tanner Scott and Paul Fry lead the list, but it’s unclear what their value will be given their short track records of success. Cedric Mullins is having a terrific season, but he’s not a sure thing, and he’s probably a player at 26 the team wants to keep around for some stability into the winning years that are hopefully to come.

The rest of the chips (Cole Sulser? Anthony Santander?) aren’t likely to get teams tripping over each other to acquire them. Mancini is probably the most attractive option, someone a contending team can plug in and expect to turn in 30 home runs, 100 RBI and an .800 OPS.

Had the Orioles had a few Grade A chips, it would have been easier to deal them, help the rebuild considerably, and keep Mancini without much scrutiny. Instead, if the Orioles have a bunch of players they’re having trouble moving for a good reward, moving Mancini may prove too tempting. One can’t expect Mike Elias to feel good about sitting pat with a losing team without taking every opportunity to improve it.

So, for those keeping track at home, it’s probably never been more important to trade the 29-year-old Mancini and get what you can from him. And it’s probably never been harder to make that move.

At the same time, trading Mancini might not be a major PR hit. They’re not cutting him. They’re not burying him in the minors. Had the Orioles tried to wiggle out from under Mancini’s contract after his diagnosis, that would have been the impression everyone got.

This would be different. This would be the team doing Mancini a favor, ostensibly by sending him to a team with a more immediate plan for winning. Mancini has said he wants to be around for when the Orioles’ rebound is complete, but playing for what just might be baseball’s worst team can’t be easy. Mancini may prefer to stay, but it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t see the downside of finishing his season elsewhere.

The hit would be local, in the form of fans realizing they have one more reason to spend the rest of the summer nights doing something else besides watch the Orioles, be it on TV or in person.

Even so, Elias may feel that the worst outcome of them all is a team that has an opportunity to help itself and doesn’t take it. Yes, it would be great if Matt Harvey were having a terrific season, or if Felix Hernandez had worked out, or if Freddy Galvis or Maikel Franco had stayed healthy and productive, or if Cesar Valdez had pulled a George Sherrill and kept up his strong performance from last year. Then the Orioles could upgrade, have a solid deadline, and do so without involving Mancini.

Instead, it might just be the case that a productive deadline can’t happen with Mancini staying put. If that’s the case, Elias will indeed have a difficult call to make.