LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Orioles general manager Dan Duquette has told teams to bring him their best offers on star infielder Manny Machado, one of the five best players in baseball who will leave them soon by trade or later by free agency after next season. With that decision, which not coincidentally came just days after the Yankees acquired Giancarlo Stanton, expanding the 16-win gap between the two clubs, the Orioles will be shutting down a competitive six-year run with Machado, manager Buck Showalter and centerfielder Adam Jones as the pillars.
But here’s the truth: that run actually ended in the second half of last year, and the Orioles are smart for recognizing it.
Today’s baseball is defined by where a team is on the winning curve. The smart clubs pick from two paths: you’re either in (competing for the postseason) or you’re out (building for the next chance to compete). The middle ground, in which 75-win teams trick themselves into believing a needle-threading, best-case scenario makes them competitive, wastes time and resources. Baltimore needs to bail from that middle ground, just as the Phillies, White Sox and Tigers belatedly have done in the past few years. So, too, do the Tampa Bay Rays, which would hand the Yankees and Red Sox more wins in a weakened division.
Officially, the Orioles haven’t punted quite yet. And even trading Machado would not necessarily trigger a full-on, back-up-the-truck, Marlins-style rebuild.
“We’re tying to make our team better for next year,” Duquette said. “Right now we are listening to offers and considering the options.”
Unofficially, they know they’d be foolish to keep Machado on a non-contender with no momentum, which is what the Orioles are today. In the past four years the Orioles have grown older, more expensive, worse and less attractive. They have taken an 18% hit at the gate in just four years, losing almost half a million fans. They have one of the four worst farm systems in baseball. They don’t pursue international free agents. Their pitching last year was the worst in the league, excepting Detroit. They are so desperate for pitching that on Thursday they took not one, not two, but three pitching lottery tickets in the Rule 5 draft. Machado, Jones, Zach Britton and Brad Brach are free agents at the end of next season, and Jonathon Schoop is next on the departure line the year after that. Chris Davis, declining at 31, is the only player they have under contract for 2020.
The beginning of the end happened midway through last season. For seven years Showalter has squeezed the most out of his roster, exceeding the team’s expected record, or Pythagorean won-lost record, in five of those years. On May 20 last season the Orioles were in first place with a 25–16 record, despite the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley making regular turns in the rotation and Chris Tillman missing a month.
It was a mirage. The lack of pitching depth in the organization doomed Baltimore. After May 20, the Orioles were 50–71—only the White Sox and Tigers, with their white flags waving, played worse. The staff posted a 5.21 ERA in those final 121 games. Over the last five weeks the rotation went 3–19. There was nothing fluky about how Baltimore spiraled to the bottom of the AL East.
“When you look at teams today,” Showalter said, “you look at how they match up in the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation—and really, you need seven or eight starters—and the relievers who are in front of your three guys at the end. That’s where you find the biggest difference. You need depth.”
The Orioles figure to be no deeper and no better this year. The old narrative on the Orioles hitting the re-set button is that feisty owner Peter Angelos would never allow it. He is 88 years old. (His son, John, has been running the day-to-day operations of the club for more than a decade.)
There is that oft-repeated story of the 1996 season, when general manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson saw a team going nowhere in July and wanted to trade pitcher David Wells and outfielder Bobby Bonilla to re-boot for 1997. Angelos looked at the team’s phenomenal season ticket base of 27,500 and would not allow it. He took both players off the market, and the veteran Orioles team responded with run to the American League Championship Series.
But that story is not just 21 years old, it also has no relevance to the Orioles’ situation today. The Baltimore Ravens had yet to play their first game at the trade deadline of 1996, and the Washington Nationals were still nine years away from moving into the neighborhood. Camden Yards was only four years old, still aglow as an attraction.
At the height of the Orioles owning the town, in 1997, 3.7 million people came to see them play at Camden Yards. Those days are long gone. More than half of those paid customers have deserted the team. Attendance reached just two million this season. Only the White Sox and the stadium-challenged A’s and Rays were a worse draw in the league. A series against the Red Sox in September, when Baltimore turns to football, drew an average of just 18,000 fans. Local TV viewership was down 26 percent.
The trade market for Machado is good, but limited because he is a one-year rental (assuming he is unlikely to forgo free agency and sign an extension as part of a trade). He could be a difference-maker for the Cardinals, Giants, Angels, Red Sox or—yes, don’t rule them out on anything—the Yankees. The White Sox and Phillies would like to get Machado now and win him over during the season to convince him to stay long term, a risky but worthwhile strategy. The Orioles must get young, near-major league ready pitching back in a deal.
The idea of trading Machado, a homegrown franchise player, must strike an Orioles fan as a lousy one, especially if he were to wind up with the Red Sox or Yankees. But at this ever-drooping point on the winning curve, as the Orioles slide further from contention, the idea of keeping him on another 75-win team is even worse.