It has become fashionable for Orioles fans to grouse about their team in recent years, and you can certainly see where those fans are coming from. But it is worth noting that the deck is stacked against the Orioles. If you were in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, not to mention a smart, resourceful Rays team and a Blue Jays franchise that recently made two straight American League Championship Series, you'd struggle a little bit, too. The Orioles start every season, even when they're good, walking uphill.
A large part of Orioles' fan frustration is the sense that they missed a window. The Orioles of the past few years, really during the Buck Showalter era, have consistently been a little better than they should have been, a little better than analysts and sabermetric sorts anticipated. They made the playoffs three times from 2012-16 and had the best overall record in the American League during that time, taking advantage of down periods for the Yankees and (other than that World Series win) the Red Sox. But they never quite broke through. They lost a crusher of an ALDS to the Yankees in 2012, were swept by the Royals in the 2014 ALCS and lost that brutal 2016 AL Wild Card Game that Zach Britton watched along with the rest of us. The wheels finally came off last year, though it is worth noting they were still in the Wild Card race on Sept. 5, until the team went on a 2-12 skid and finished September with a 7-20 record.
Now it looks tougher for the Orioles than ever, with the Yankees beefing up again and the Red Sox hot on their tails. The brief moment where the Yankees and Red Sox weren't dominating the AL East appears to be over. And the Orioles appear to be ceding to reality and are listening to offers on Manny Machado, who is a free agent after this season. After that, presumably, the Orioles will trade away everything that isn't nailed down, a full fire sale.
Orioles fans are generally in support of this, even while they're skeptical that an Astros-type teardown is realistic. The Orioles have sort of skidded around without a plan for a few years now, barely keeping their head above water, and you can understand why they'd be ready to start over, build around young players and follow the White Sox plan. (The Orioles don't have the assets the White Sox did, but they have some, including Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, Brad Brach and Britton.) The Orioles most likely aren't going to catch the Yankees or Red Sox anyway. Might be time to make an overhaul.
The problem with this logic -- and it is logical -- is that it is at least one, and maybe two, years too late. If the Orioles were going to cede to the Yankees and Red Sox, they should have done it after the 2016 season, or even before then. Imagine what the Orioles might have gotten for Machado had they traded him at last year's Deadline. (Alex Reyes would almost certainly be an Oriole right now.) Imagine if they had traded Britton when contenders last year were desperate for bullpen help. Who couldn't have used Jonathan Schoop's bat last October?
But the Orioles didn't do that. Even if the Orioles make trades now, they're not going to get a great return; they waited too long, and their best assets have depreciated. Machado, who is going to sign a massive contract when he becomes a free agent next season, is now just a rental, and the Orioles will be lucky to get one top-50 prospect for him, let alone the bounty they might have gotten last year. There are simply not White Sox types of trades for them out there. The Orioles aren't going to get anything from a Machado trade that is going to make them more likely to catch the Yankees and Red Sox in five years. If anything, considering the trajectory of those franchises, they'll face tougher challenges five years from now than they do now. Trading Machado to facilitate a better future assumes facts not in evidence.
Which brings me to my radical idea for the Orioles: Keep Machado. Keep Jones. Keep Britton. Keep Brach. Go for it. This wouldn't have been my advice for the Orioles before last season, but it is now. The Orioles are highly unlikely to make the playoffs next season, but they're unlikely to make the playoffs in 2019, or 2020, or possibly for a long while after that. From 1998-2011, the Orioles didn't finish with a winning record once. That's the sort of stretch Orioles fans are fearful of. So why start it before you absolutely have to?
Machado actually had a down year last year, but he's still a superstar, and he's definitely going to be aware that a return to form in 2018 will add zeros and zeros to that big contract. He is highly motivated to be a monster this year. Why should the Orioles let the Cardinals reap the benefits of that monster year, or the Yankees, or the Phillies? If you're not going to get a lot for him anyway -- or enough, anyway, to launch The Great Rebuilding -- then why not get that sweet Machado action for yourself? Why not roll the dice one last time? Buck Showalter is on the last year of his contract; he's likely gone after this year anyway. He's the primary reason for any of the success you've had in the last half-decade. Give him one more shot! Sure, there doesn't seem to be any elite starting pitching on the roster, but the Orioles rarely have any starting pitching and they still (until last year, at least in September) figured out a way to contend. Maybe you'll catch lightning in a bottle!
It is a huge hill for the Orioles to climb in 2018. But it could be so much steeper after that, no matter what the Orioles do with Machado and their roster. The time to be realistic about what faced the Orioles was two years ago, and they didn't do it. So why start now? Maybe Machado goes nuts, and Schoop is great again, and the bullpen is lockdown, and a starting pitcher or two pan out. Could the Orioles sneak out a second Wild Card spot? Probably not. But they could. They sure can't if they trade Machado, though. So why not hang onto him? Worse case, it all falls apart and they can trade him at the Deadline. Will a Deadline-desperate team in a hot pennant chase really pay that much less for him in July than a team would right now? It's gotta be close, right?
It will be tough, but the future could be tougher. The Orioles might as well be pot committed at this point. Might as well floor it.
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