The 2018 MLB Trade Deadline has been a long time coming for fans in Baltimore.
The bulk of the core of their successful teams from 2012-16 was either past its prime or in the final year of their contracts, and it was readily apparent that major changes were coming.
The Orioles were the most fun story in sports in 2012, breaking their 14-season streak of losing games in the most exciting ways imaginable: by breaking records for success in one-run and extra innings games, both of which are generally considered to be flukey. They won with their sluggers pitching and with other team’s castoffs playing major roles, and it was as exciting a summer as Baltimore had seen this millennium.
They were still okay in 2013, though in exchange for some of the team’s success, fans were treated to a historic performance by Chris Davis, becoming the only player in Major League Baseball history to finish a season with exactly 53 home runs.
2014 was the season in which the Orioles were legitimately great. They finished with 96 wins, two behind the Angels’ MLB-leading total of 98. They won the vaunted AL East by a whopping 12 games, and they swept the Tigers in three games during an epic ALDS in which the Orioles took down, in order, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and David Price. That’s six combined CY Young awards between them, which is six more than the number of games they won in that series.
That would be the high point in this era of Orioles baseball, however, as they went on to get swept in excruciating fashion by the upstart Royals, and despite making an appearance in the AL Wild Card Game in 2016, the Orioles have never been true contenders since.
Yet, for some reason, the front office resisted the idea of blowing things up and starting from scratch. The “trust the process” mantra of tanking in the NBA had reached Major League Baseball by this decade, with the Cubs and Astros embarking on major rebuilds that lead to World Series titles in 2016 and 2017. The Orioles, never ones for realistic self-evaluations, continued to view themselves as contenders despite evidence to the contrary growing more apparent each season.
Finally, it all came crashing down.
The Orioles entered 2018 once again hoping to defeat the odds and compete in the American League, yet instead of even playing to a .500 record, they find themselves in the cellar. Not of the division, but in all of baseball. They are on pace for the worst season any team in the sport has had in 15 years, going back to the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who finished 43-119.
The obvious could no longer be ignored. It was time to sell.
Knowing how Peter Angelos has operated in his decades owning the team, it would have been pretty easy to imagine the Orioles simply trading their rental pieces and holding onto anyone under contract in 2019 and beyond. This would have been a massive mistake, considering the Orioles won’t be entering a new competitive window for at least three years, and probably closer to four or five years.
Yet, it would not have been out of character for management. Then, on Trade Deadline Day, they shocked the world and became the number one story in baseball for an afternoon.
They had already jettisoned the most talented player in recent franchise history in Manny Machado, and longtime closer Zach Britton was already wearing pinstripes in New York. Brad Brach had been shipped off for international signing slots, and Adam Jones had exercised his 10-5 rights (a no-trade clause).
It looked like they were done, but they decided that this year, there would be no half measures. By the end of the day, stalwarts Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman (who had one and two years remaining on their contracts, respectively) were no longer in orange and black. The true rebuild had begun.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter what prospects the Orioles received in return for their controllable assets. Personally, I am pretty happy with the package the team got back from the Brewers for Schoop, and decidedly unhappy with who they got from the Braves for Gausman. What matters far more for the future of the franchise, however, is the major shift in philosophy this represents. For the first time in many, many years, the Orioles were willing to admit that a sea change would be necessary if they wanted to compete again, and they were willing to take action instead of standing idly by and hoping to luck into another 2012-esque season.
Now, for better or worse, they’ve taken matters into their own hands. It’d be fair to question if they took the right approach in their trades, as it appears they opted for a “quantity over quality” method in returns for Machado, Britton, Gausman, and Schoop. What cannot be argued is how meaningful it is to see the Orioles commit to stinking up the joint for the next few seasons as they build a new core from scratch.
This farm system needed both star quality and improved depth up and down each level, and they certainly accomplished the depth angle. They added a whopping 15 pieces in these deals, and 10 of their 30 top prospects were not with the team two months ago.
They are noticeably still lacking star quality at the top, but remember, this team is a lock to pick first or second in the 2019 MLB Draft (and there appears to be two clear stars in the class in the form of high school shortstop Bobby Witt, Jr. and college catcher Adley Rutschman), and will almost certainly find themselves with top-five picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts as well.
It’s important to remember that the key to success in Houston and Chicago wasn’t the trading of major league talent in return for minor league packages (though many of those players have certainly been valuable pieces). The strength of those title-winning teams was in their top picks who panned out. Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber were first, second, second, and fourth overall picks in their respective drafts, and consistently hitting on these young, controllable stars is what propelled those teams to the top of the mountain.
The Orioles have gotten the hard part out of the way. They’ve admitted to themselves that a full-scale rebuild was necessary, and they’ve revamped their depth throughout the minor leagues. Plus, they’ve positioned themselves to acquire cheap star-level talent during the next few drafts. If they can hit on their top picks in the coming years, all of a sudden they could find themselves looking like the next behemoths in the sport. The front office is finally trusting the process, and Orioles fans are ready to do the same.
Of course, it will be ideal if some of the top prospects the Orioles have acquired this month are able to break out in a big way, but regardless of how they pan out, the Orioles already took the biggest step of all in recognizing what their near-future has to look like. That attitude alone made them the talk of Major League Baseball for a day, and already cements them as winners of the 2018 deadline.
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