The 30th team, though, is the Baltimore Orioles, and they reported for duty Tuesday with no better sense of where their organization is going than they had the day before, amid the confusing jumble of rumors that is deadline day.
“Um, I mean, honest answer? Probably not necessarily,” Orioles closer Zach Britton said Tuesday, as delicately as possible, when asked if he could discern his team’s direction following a deadline day that held the promise of grand statements but that ultimately came and went with a fizzle. “I think a lot of guys would agree … I’m not sure.”
On the day the trade deadline arrived, the Orioles were three games below .500, in fourth place in the American League East division and 5½ games out of a wild card. They were in possession of the worst starting rotation in the league by nearly one full run of ERA.
With owner Peter Angelos having already signed off on trading away some of the team’s veteran pieces, including its stable of excellent relievers, speculation was rampant that, by 4 p.m. Tuesday, either Britton or right-hander Brad Brach, or both, would be on new teams. It would have made perfect sense for a proud team on a downswing — one that made three playoff appearances from 2012-16, but that seemed clearly outmanned in 2017 — to turn their most desirable pieces into future assets, particularly when the Orioles’ farm system is known to be one of the worst in the game. Plenty of other struggling teams did essentially just that.
Alternately, if the Orioles truly believed they were one or two pieces from contending again this summer — not a great bet, but okay, fine — they could have taken the opposite tack and traded prospects to fill their biggest need, namely an impact starting pitcher or two. Plenty of other teams did that, too.
But when the trade deadline came and went, the Orioles had done neither. Their only moves were minor, head-scratching acquisitions — they got Jeremy Hellickson, a middling starting pitcher with the second-worst strikeout rate in the majors, from the Philadelphia Phillies, and Tim Beckham, a middling shortstop with a career on-base percentage of .299, from the Tampa Bay Rays. Oh, and they acquired a Class AA pitcher, Yefry Ramirez, from the New York Yankees for international signing bonus-pool money that the Orioles weren’t going to spend anyway.
Though the acquisitions didn’t cost the Orioles anybody they were likely to regret losing, neither Hellickson, a rental who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, nor Beckham, who comes with an additional three years of club control, are anything close to difference-makers — particularly when the division-leading Yankees were seizing their own destiny with a couple of major trades for rotation, bullpen and infield help.
“We’re going to take a shot at getting the most out of this season,” Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette told reporters in the aftermath of the deadline. “Teams are so evenly matched, if you make a move here or there and it jells — who knows? … There’s still hope for 2017. The ownership group believes there’s hope for 2017. So we’re going to keep playing the schedule.”
But it was difficult even before the trade deadline to envision the Orioles catching wild-card contenders such as Boston and Kansas City, and it was even more difficult to do so afterward, when both of those teams improved their rosters to greater degrees than Baltimore did. Even a pair of wins on Monday and Tuesday over the surging Royals hasn’t changed the Orioles’ essential math. It isn’t the size of their deficits — and they are still six games back in their division and 3½ in the wild card — but the number of good teams ahead of them, three in their division and three in the wild card.
Clearly, some highly motivated teams, including the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals, had huge interest in Britton, and it is entirely possible the Orioles simply asked for an outsized return — based on the Britton of 2016, when he turned in one of the greatest relief seasons in history — while those potential suitors saw a guy who missed two months of this season with an arm injury and has only recently appeared to be back to his old self. Sometimes that happens.
But around the industry, the fact the Orioles did next to nothing at the deadline signaled a lack of vision for either the present or the future.
“I thought, just based on what I heard, that there was a good chance I was going somewhere,” Britton said on Tuesday. “I was kind of surprised no one got traded, just based on what was getting talked about and the names being thrown around.”
Even under the most generous interpretation, there is only one possible rationale for the organization to do what it did at the trade deadline, and it involves leaps of imagination that defy both logic and recent history. Under this scenario, the Orioles regroup with the same core and take one last shot at contention in 2018, before franchise cornerstones Britton, Manny Machado and Adam Jones all reach free agency.
“I know we have a bunch of guys who are approaching free agency, so you would assume since we didn’t trade anybody, we’re trying to keep that intact going into next year,” Britton said. “But I’m not sure. … That’s the only thing I can think of.”
But even leaving aside the sheer distance the Yankees and Red Sox have put between themselves and the Orioles — both in the standings and in organizational depth — this scenario requires a few assumptions. It assumes the many returning Orioles who are underperforming in 2017 — a group that includes Machado, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, all of whom are down 50 or more points of OPS from their career norms — have significantly better seasons in 2018.
And it assumes the Orioles can find some impact pieces, particularly starting pitchers, in a free agent marketplace in which the franchise has been merely bit players in recent winters. The Orioles have given out only one contract of four or more years to a free agent starter under Angelos’s reign, and that one — the four-year, $50 million deal for Ubaldo Jimenez — did not turn out so well.
“We’ve never really been big in free agency since I’ve been here,” Britton said Tuesday.
Should the Orioles fall out of contention next summer, they can always turn around and trade assets such as Britton, or even Machado, but at that point their values will be significantly less than what they were on Monday, because of their pending free agencies and the fact that a contending team would get their services for one playoff race instead of two.
A team with more foresight would have made their big moves now, maximizing their return, rebuilding their farm system and positioning themselves to be right back in contention again in another year or so. The Orioles, though, missed their biggest chance to build a winner for the future, all for the sake of a present that looks more and more precarious all the time.
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