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The Orioles’ offseason ahead will be a pivotal one

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There are still two months left in the regular season, but the O’s already seem to have a crucial winter in front of them.

MLB: Houston Astros at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s trade deadline saw the Orioles largely stand pat, making two minor deals that sent Freddy Galvis and Shawn Armstrong to playoff contenders while the only prospect coming back is 23-year-old reliever Tyler Burch. Despite the flurry of moves elsewhere in the league, it wasn’t a surprising outcome for the O’s, who didn’t possess the sort of highly-coveted yet easily-moveable players that dominated the day.

The Orioles are at a crucial point in their organizational rebuild. Their farm system has dramatically improved, and is now widely viewed as one of the best in the sport. Plus, many of the high-end talents in that farm system could reasonably be expected to make their big leagues debut within the next year. On top of that, the major league squad’s best players are all pretty far from free agency. The time to “go for it” is approaching, and it would not have made sense to be heavy sellers this past week.

But don’t take it from me, a random blogger on the internet. This is what Orioles’ GM Mike Elias said on the matter over the weekend:

“Leading into this deadline, we were very mindful of the fact that a lot of our best players that were in demand are players that are not pending free agents with the Orioles, and they’re players that are young and talented and we like and that have future years with this club and project to be a part of this club when we hope to be a playoff contender.”

(h/t The Baltimore Sun)

One would imagine that comments like that won’t preclude the front office from making a sizable deal in the offseason if they feel it still makes sense for the future of the club, which is drawing ever closer.

That works both ways, though. Eventually, Elias and his crew will need to pivot and bring in more than promising, inexperienced talent. Bold trades and logical free agent signings, paired with all of the organizational improvements in player development, will be the formula needed to put together a winner in Baltimore.

As can often be helpful, looking at what the Houston Astros did in the seasons just before they became a perennial juggernaut is informative.

Prior to 2015, a season in which they would finish with an 86-76 record, they gave infielder Jed Lowrie a three-year, $28 million contract, reliever Luke Gregerson a three-year, $18.5 million contract, and reliever Pat Neshek a two-year, $12.5 million contract. Plus they dealt away a prospect-laden package that included Mike Foltynewicz and Rio Ruiz to nab slugging catcher Evan Gattis from the Braves.

This was a series of moves that showed the Astros were no longer stacking their chips for some undetermined date in the future. They were ready to win, and that meant adding major leaguers to a club full of young talent.

Of course, that young talent is a crucial element here that can’t be glazed over. The ‘15 Astros boasted a lineup with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, each under 25 years old. Not to mention Dallas Keuchel, who would win the AL Cy Young that season, and a rookie Lance McCullers Jr.

It should go without saying that the Orioles are still a bit behind where those 2015 Astros were. Ignoring age, even if the performances of Cedric Mullins and John Means are to be believed, the team would still need more promising pieces in both the lineup and rotation to be considered on par.

Go back a year and check out the 2014 Astros. This was a team that would go on to finish 70-92, firing manager Bo Porter part-way through the year, despite the win-loss record being a dramatic improvement from 51-111 the previous season. Their moves heading into the year were rather tepid. They traded for Dexter Fowler and Anthony Bass, and gave out free agent deals to Scott Feldman and Chad Qualls. Other than that, it was loaded with waiver claims and low stakes contracts. The biggest news of the entire season was the big league debut of Springer, a consensus top-25 prospect.

That feels closer to where the Orioles exist right now. If all goes according to plan, this team should see the big league debuts of both Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez in 2022, with the possibility that others join them. The front office may prefer to let them get their feet wet prior making a major free agent splash.

But these situations are all unique. Just because the Orioles are unlikely to be playoff contenders next season does not mean they can’t make a high-profile move or two this winter with an eye on 2023.

The name that has gotten brought up time and time again, so much so that it is essentially a meme at this point, is Correa. When the shortstop was drafted out of high school, Elias played an integral role in the Astros making that selection. He eventually became a top-5 prospect, rocketed through the minors, won Rookie of the Year, went to a couple of All-Star Games and has become a young star in the sport.

Correa will be a free agent after the year, and given that 2022 would only be his age-27 season, there may be less risk to giving him a long-term deal than there would be for most players, who tend to hit free agency for the first time three or four years later in their careers. Even in what promises to be a robust free agent class of shortstop, Correa stands out.

It makes a lot of sense on paper. Elias has a history with Correa. Correa is a really good player. And while the Orioles have promising shortstop prospects in the pipeline, it is nothing that should stop them from signing Correa and moving the likes of Gunnar Henderson or Jordan Westburg elsewhere on the field when the time comes. Bottom line: if the Orioles want Correa, they should make every effort to get him.

But a lot of other teams will be interested in adding a top-tier shortstop this winter as well, including the Astros themselves. Plus, a contract the size of what Correa will garner goes beyond the GM. Ownership will need to get on board, and that could be a tough sell given how bad the Orioles have been for a few years now.