The Baltimore Orioles are not good. That’s hardly a bold proclamation or a nuanced piece of analysis, but it’s a fact — likely an understated one. The Orioles’ -72 run differential is the worst in Major League Baseball this season. The team has, somehow, scored the second-fewest runs in MLB this year (topping only the Marlins) while simultaneously yielding the second-most runs in the game (trailing only the Rangers). Orioles hitters, as a collective unit, have a .288 OBP. Their pitchers have a 4.95 ERA with metrics (4.61 FIP, 4.40 xFIP) that largely match. If this were a rebuilding club, perhaps that’d be acceptable or at the very least expected. The Orioles, though, spent $76MM in an effort to bolster their rotation in the offseason.
It’s rare to be able to say in early May that a club that planned on contending is effectively eliminated from the playoffs, but that’s the case for the Orioles. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus list Baltimore’s playoff odds at zero percent. They’re one of two teams, along with the Reds, to hold that distinction. Some fans don’t love postseason odds based on projection systems, though, so let’s present the uphill battle they’re facing in another manner.
In order even to reach the 85-win mark — that was enough for the Twins to sneak into the second Wild Card spot last season — the Orioles would need to go 77-51 through season’s end. (Realistically, it’ll likely take more than 85 wins, but I’ll stick with that for the purposes of this basic exercise.) That 77-51 record would represent a .601 winning percentage. Only three teams in baseball have played above a .600 clip so far in the year, and two of them — the Yankees and Red Sox — are in the Orioles’ division.
In these circumstances, Baltimore should sell off pieces this summer. That much is clear, and it’s seemed nearly inevitable since before the season even began that the O’s would go down that road. Adding Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb to a poor rotation picture certainly should’ve improved the Orioles somewhat, but it never seemed likely to make them contenders.
As summer approaches, Manny Machado could be the most talked-about trade chip in the game. He’ll be joined by the likes of Zach Britton, Adam Jones and Brad Brach — each of whom is a free agent at season’s end. The O’s will probably also field interest in Darren O’Day. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic suggested as much earlier today. But there’s little reason for the Orioles to stop there.
Realistically, the O’s aren’t going to get the haul for Machado that many fans would hope. He’s going to be a pure rental, and while he’s an elite hitter who can play two premium positions, he alone will not fetch a franchise-altering return. Machado is a younger player with far more defensive value than J.D. Martinez had last summer, but it’s worth reminding that the best bat on the market last year netted three mid-range prospects — none of whom were even considered to be among the D-backs’ best two or three prospects and none of whom received any top 100 fanfare. Machado will probably fetch one premium prospect and another second- or third-tier piece or two. The ship has sailed on Britton netting an Aroldis Chapman-esque return as well. He wasn’t especially good when he was healthy last season, and he’ll be coming off two major injuries that will have limited him to somewhere around 60 innings dating back to Opening Day 2017. He’s also earning $12MM in 2018.
If the Orioles want to dramatically remake their farm system — and they should want to do just that — then they need to be more willing to part with longer-term assets. Jonathan Schoop, Mychal Givens, Kevin Gausman and even Dylan Bundy should all be firmly in play for teams willing to part with considerable packages of talent.
Schoop is a free agent after the 2019 season, so it may be too late for Baltimore to secure an extension at this juncture. Gausman is controlled through 2020, but the chances of Baltimore competing with the Yankees and Red Sox in 2019-20 looks slim with much of their core departing and a bleak farm system. Givens has reportedly been deemed largely untouchable in trade talks, but three and a half years of a setup man with his penchant for missing bats would command serious interest. O’s fans undoubtedly bristle at the notion of dealing Bundy after years of anticipating his arrival and his signs of a potential breakout early this season, but three-plus years of him would be arguably the most coveted asset available in July if he can maintain a K-BB% in the 21 percent range.
Baltimore’s problems, though, extend beyond the roster at present. Both GM Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are in the final seasons of their respective contracts. Rosenthal and others have reported on the shifting dynamic in the team’s front office, with vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson said to be taking on greater responsibility and Duquette’s influence fading. Similarly, Lou and John Angelos, sons of owner Peter Angelos, are said to be increasingly involved in operations, with the Angelos sons and Anderson reportedly pushing hard to finalize the signing of Cobb.
Whoever is calling the shots for the O’s, there are multiple organizational philosophies that need an upheaval. Most glaring and baffling is Baltimore’s seeming refusal to spend any money international prospects. Each year, the Orioles routinely trade away their international bonus allotments for fringe prospects and fringe big leaguers. None of those moves have yielded a quality regular to this point, and a large reason that the team’s farm system is in such disrepair is a bizarre decision to sit out one of the primary avenues of amateur talent acquisition.
Beyond that, the Orioles would be wise to actually make use of the Competitive Balance draft selections they receive on an annual basis. In years past, the O’s have befuddled onlookers by using those picks to help them shed small-scale financial obligations to middle relievers. The Orioles effectively sold their pick in 2015 to the Dodgers in exchange for L.A.’s agreement to take the remaining year and $2.75M on Ryan Webb’s contract. A year later, they “sold” their pick to the Braves in order to shed the remaining total of roughly $3MM on Brian Matusz’s contract. In 2014, the O’s traded their Comp Balance pick to the Astros alongside Josh Hader and L.J. Hoes in order to acquire Bud Norris, although that trade at least netted some immediate big league talent.
Bottom line: the O’s have had Competitive Balance picks in each of the past five seasons but have only held onto those selections on two occasions. Norris gave them one strong season in 2014, but they’ve received nothing from the other trades involving picks.
Three years ago on the MLBTR Podcast, Jeff Todd and I discussed how the Reds were in position to rapidly rebuild their farm system by trading not only rental pieces (e.g. Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake) but also several players with additional control remaining. Doing so would’ve meant selling high on assets like Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce and Aroldis Chapman — a tough sell for the fanbase but one that likely would’ve been considerably more beneficial than the route the Reds ultimately took in holding onto those stars and watching their value diminish.
The Orioles find themselves in a similar spot — buried in a strong division with a weak farm system and little in the way of immediate hope for contending in 2019-20. They have several obvious rental pieces to market in July, but by opening themselves up to shipping off other assets with multiple years of control left on the books, they can stockpile a host of near-MLB assets and potentially avoid the style of lengthy, arduous rebuild that’s happening in Cincinnati at the moment. With an aggressive seller’s mentality this July and newfound commitments to both the international prospect market and the amateur draft, the Orioles should be able to establish the type of prospect pipeline they’ve lacked for years.