Perhaps the Orioles have finally concluded they’re drawing dead.
There’s little sense in going for a straight or a flush if the other players at the poker table are already holding a full house, and that’s what the American League East is once again looking like after some leaner years — relatively speaking — for its two behemoths.
Even if executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette were to sign a pair of accomplished starting pitchers such as Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn this offseason, that may not be enough to seriously challenge the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Of course, there are no indications owner Peter Angelos is willing to make such steep financial commitments anyway after the disastrous Ubaldo Jimenez contract finally came off the books at the end of last season.
All the talk about the Orioles making a final run with their group of pending free agents sounds nice, but aggressively spending is the only realistic way to make that happen now and that’s just not in this organization’s DNA despite some success in recent years. Trading a part or two in an already-barren farm system for a mediocre-at-best starter and signing minor-league free agents are not realistic means to the end as the last few years have proven.
That brings us to Manny Machado, one of the best players in baseball who’s less than a year away from becoming a free agent. The rumors and reports are rampant this week about the Orioles finally being willing to part with their All-Star third baseman, who apparently now wants to play shortstop with J.J. Hardy no longer in the picture. What that would mean for Tim Beckham is anyone’s guess.
Of course, the Orioles have known for years that Machado was scheduled to hit the open market at the end of 2018, but Duquette confirmed to reporters Tuesday that they haven’t engaged in contract talks in a long time. That truth reflects the organization’s lack of any long-term vision, a reality reinforced by ownership entrusting a general manager entering the final year of his contract to manage this delicate situation in the first place.
Using hindsight, the optimal time to sign the 25-year-old likely would have been after the 2014 season when he underwent his second knee surgery in as many years. It would have been risky — and we know how the Orioles scrutinize medical records — and far from cheap, but the financial commitment to buy out the first few years of Machado’s free agency would have paled in comparison to what they would need to pay to keep him now.
But that’s ancient history as is the chance to have fetched a bigger return for him last winter or last July.
It’s better late than never if Angelos isn’t willing to extend Machado — a fair position considering the anticipated price and competition for his services next offseason — and is now open to him being dealt, but there’s no telling whether the Orioles will properly execute such a franchise-defining decision. And that’s what makes the developments at the winter meetings all the more unsettling.
According to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, the Orioles are seeking two young starting pitchers with controllable years, but how realistic is that in exchange for just one year of Machado? Even if that is doable, is Duquette looking for major-league-ready starters with limited potential in hopes of merely being competitive in 2018 or prospects a bit further away from the majors with much higher ceilings?
If you’re going to trade Machado, you should be seeking the best deal possible — pitching or positional talent — from any potential suitor and shouldn’t be doing it with any major regard for the present. If your goal is being competitive next season, you wouldn’t be trading your best player in the first place. If that means you then look to trade other pending free agents such as Zach Britton, Brad Brach, or even Adam Jones, so be it.
You can’t play it both ways, no matter what you try to tell fans or the media.
But Duquette’s own status complicates that since he’s no more invested in the organization beyond next season than Machado is at the moment. The Orioles finishing in last place again in 2018 wouldn’t exactly bode well for his résumé if this is his own finale in Baltimore.
The Orioles engaging in trade talks doesn’t mean a deal will be completed this week — remember we’re talking about Angelos here — but it is a hopeful sign that they won’t allow one of the most talented players in club history to simply walk away for an inconsequential draft pick next fall. The idea of parting with a special talent like Machado really hurts, but Baltimore can improve its long-term outlook by accepting the strong likelihood that the current group’s window has closed and trading assets unlikely to be here for the next competitive window.
Even if you like your hand, folding it with eyes toward the future sometimes proves to be the best move.