Act now while supplies last.
When it comes to the Baltimore Orioles, that’s the phrase that comes to mind. Last winter, the Orioles failed to act. They didn’t trade Zach Britton, who was coming off arguably the greatest relief season in MLB history and still had two years remaining on his contract, because they thought they could compete for an American League East title and needed their All-Star closer to do it. They didn’t act last summer, when they opted not to move Britton at the trade deadline, then limped their way to 75 victories and a last-place finish. They didn’t act earlier this month, when they left Orlando’s winter meetings without having dealt Britton or rumor mill darling-du-jour Manny Machado. Now, a few days before the end of Christmas, supplies are dwindling. Fast.
On Tuesday, Britton suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon while training in California and is expected to miss six months. It’s a horribly timed injury on multiple levels. First and foremost, it’s a blow for Britton, who suffered through an injury-plagued 2017, turns 30 years old on Friday, and is set to become a free agent after next season. Besides limiting his value on the open market, it kills his value on the trade market. Even if Britton manages to make it back by midseason, it’s hard to imagine a contender coughing up much more than a loogie for his services. Not that that last part is his problem. But it is very much Baltimore’s problem.
In losing Britton, the Orioles not only lost a guy who, when healthy, is one of the most dominant relievers in the game. They also lost one of their shiniest trade chips. The good news is, they still have other chips. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from the Britton injury, it’s this: If owner Peter Angelos and general manager Dan Duquette care at all about the long-term viability of the franchise, they need to use their chips while they still have them. Which brings us to Machado.
In all likelihood, if Machado had any intention of signing a long-term extension to stay in Charm City, it would’ve already happened. But it has not, which means the three-time All-Star is headed for free agency. If you believe the Birds stand a chance of re-signing him, then fine -- don’t trade him. If you believe they stand a chance of making it to the World Series for the first time in 35 years, then fine -- hold onto him. But right now, neither of those things seems even remotely likely because … the Yankees.
Do the O’s stand a greater-than-zero chance of signing Machado a year from now? Sure. But it’s hard to imagine them, or any other team, really, competing with the Yankees, who seemingly removed themselves from next winter’s Bryce Harper sweepstakes when they traded for Giancarlo Stanton earlier this month. Now, when next offseason rolls around, the Yanks can focus their attention (and dollars) on Machado, who grew up worshiping fellow Dominican-American Alex Rodriguez, wears the same number as the former Yankee (13), and would have the opportunity to play the same position that Rodriguez once manned in New York, a city that’s teeming with proud Dominican heritage.
Do the O’s stand a greater-than-zero chance of reaching the World Series next season? Sure. But it’s hard to imagine them, or any other team not named the Astros or Indians, competing with the Yankees. After all, Baltimore’s starting pitching was absolutely brutal last season, to the tune of a league-worst 5.70 ERA. And that was without having to face Stanton 19 times. Now that the former Marlins slugger is in the AL East, an ERA north of six seems entirely attainable for a perilously thin O’s rotation that features Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and … um … did I mention Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman? Even if Duquette and skipper Buck Showalter manage to once again do their smoke-and-mirrors thing and finagle a rotation that somehow keeps the team in games, the lineup is still one-dimensional, the defense is still average at best, and the bullpen -- long a strength that masked the rotation’s weakness -- isn’t what it once was, not without Britton.
All of which is to say, the Orioles need to act now. Not just with Machado, but with all their chips. When teams call on Brad Brach, whether it’s now or in July, listen. When teams call on Adam Jones, listen. When teams make better offers for Machado, listen. Listen like a team that knows it has a poor track record of drafting and developing starting pitchers. Listen like a team that, whether it’s because of financial constraints or because of a small park that scares prospective pitchers away, knows it has trouble seducing starters via free agency. Listen like a team that knows its best bet to acquire pitching is through a trade for talented arms that have already been identified and developed by other organizations, and that belong to controllable players who have no choice as to where they work. Listen long, listen carefully and act.
Act like the Rays acted earlier on Wednesday, when they shipped franchise face Evan Longoria to San Francisco. Act like the White Sox acted last winter, when they unloaded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton in return for a shipload of prospects who instantly transformed Chicago’s farm system into a top five outfit. Act like a club that’s prudently planning for the future instead of a club that thinks year-to-year and considers a postseason appearance -- no matter how brief -- the end that justifies the means.
That’s not to say that the Orioles should pull the trigger just for the sake of pulling the trigger. When they decided to cling to Britton at the trade deadline last year, it was presumably because the front office felt it wasn’t getting enough in return. And that was their right. But as Britton’s Achilles injury illustrates, there’s an imperceptibly -- and unpredictably -- fine line between getting fair value and getting nothing at all.