Nearly six years have gone by — significantly, the same amount of service time a player must accrue to reach free agency — and it is possible, at this moment of reflection, to look back at the arc of Machado’s Orioles career and say he did just about all anyone in Baltimore could have asked.
That first summer, having moved to third base out of deference to veteran J.J. Hardy, he helped lift the Orioles to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. By 2013, he was an all-star and a Gold Glover. By 2015, he was posting the first of three straight 30-homer seasons.
“This guy,” Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette gushed in May 2013, “was born to play baseball.”
And by this summer, back at shortstop and fully formed as a 25-year-old superstar, he had revealed himself to be what he was expected to be all along: the best Orioles position player since Cal Ripken Jr. and the best reason to go to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Machado’s arrival in Baltimore coincided with the franchise’s best sustained stretch of winning — a five-year span from 2012 to 2016 when the team made three playoff appearances and won the most games of any American League team — since the 1979-83 years that included the Orioles’ last two World Series appearances.
But the moment Orioles fans have long feared is here, with the team finalizing a trade Wednesday that sent Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a package of five prospects headed by outfielder Yusniel Diaz, a 21-year-old Cuba native who hit a pair of home runs in Sunday’s Futures Game at Nationals Park in Washington, and including right-handed pitchers Dean Kremer and Zach Pop and infielders Rylan Bannon and Breyvic Valera.
At the point at which they have chosen to send away their best player in a generation — a sound decision, given the team’s circumstances and Machado’s approaching free agency — the Orioles are at a low-water point in the franchise’s recent history, if not its entire history. At 28-69 at the all-star break (and a staggering 39½ games out of first place), they are on pace for a franchise-record 115 losses. Yes, the 2018 Orioles are even worse than the 1988 squad (54-107) that opened the season by losing its first 21 games.
“It’s tough. It’s very tough,” Machado told reporters as the first half wound down. “It’s not easy going out there [after] being a winning team the last six years or being in contention, fighting for a playoff spot every year, and then this year has been kind of the opposite.”
This is a day that has been coming since at least Jan. 16, 2016. On that day, the Orioles signed slugger Chris Davis to a seven-year, $161 million contract to remain with the team — a decision that has proved to be doubly disastrous for the franchise. Davis has mysteriously devolved into a strikeout-prone, .158-hitting albatross who is under contract for four more seasons after this one, and the money that might have been used to retain Machado is gone. It was never a strict, black-and-white, either-or proposition, of course. But with Machado’s price tag estimated to be in excess of $300 million, the Orioles always were considered to be a long shot to keep him, and the Davis deal only started the countdown clock on his departure.
While the Orioles probably should have traded Machado a year ago — when a contending team could have had him for two postseason runs, instead of one — and almost certainly could have traded him this past winter, when they fielded offers but deemed none of them satisfactory, this was the month, with the July 31 trade deadline looming, when hanging on to Machado no longer made any sense.
The Angelos family always has been loath to write off seasons, eschewing the industry trend of tearing down and rebuilding even when it has seemed logical to do so. But a 115-loss pace at the all-star break has a way of altering plans, and to have held on to Machado and allowed him to walk away with only draft picks in return would have been malpractice.
Meanwhile, Diaz is a center fielder rated as the fourth-best prospect in the Dodgers’ deep farm system and is hitting .314 with a .428 on-base percentage and .477 slugging percentage in Class AA; he could be in Baltimore by next season.
With Machado gone, why would anyone attend a game at Camden Yards the rest of the season? To this point, the Orioles’ home attendance has been remarkably robust given the circumstances; at an average of 20,134 per game, it is the lowest since the stadium opened in 1992 but not by much, and there are five teams drawing worse.
Having resolved to trade their best player, there is no reason for the Orioles to stop now. They have other expendable pieces that teams will want, including relievers Zach Britton and Brad Brach, center fielder Adam Jones and infielder Danny Valencia, and they would be wise to listen to offers as well for younger, controllable assets such as starters Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman and future closer Mychal Givens. This isn’t a franchise that appears to be in position to turn things around before those players reach free agency a few years down the road.
This is bound to be a painful second half of the season at Camden Yards, but it was bound to be that way anyway, with the Orioles at their absolute worst even as their greatest player in a generation was at his absolute best.
Machado could be maddening at times, prone to emotional outbursts — the time he threw his bat toward Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson, an act that got him suspended, comes to mind — and guilty of an occasional failure to run out groundballs. Just last month, he failed to hustle on a double play grounder against Seattle, a sin for which he apologized the next day.
But the lingering image of Machado in Baltimore will be of him making a diving stop down the line at third base, the way Brooks Robinson used to do; making a laser throw from deep in the hole at short, the way Ripken did; and hitting a towering home run into the bullpens in left-center, a little like Eddie Murray used to do.
He could have been the heir to all of them, and had things worked a little differently, perhaps he might have been. But right now, while life will go on for both Machado and the Orioles, he’s pointed in one direction, and they are pointed in another.