It’s Time For the Orioles to Rebuild

Let us first pause to reflect on what the Orioles have accomplished in recent history.

As a small fish in the largest and richest on ponds, they have won more games than any other team in the AL East since 2012. The Orioles have advanced to the postseason three times in the last five years. They have consistently beat the pre-season expectations of projection systems at FanGraphs and elsewhere. And while they’re not out of the race yet, one has to wonder if this is the year the Orioles need to take a step backwards.

On Monday night, the Orioles fell to below .500 as Dylan Bundy struggled against Cleveland. Baltimore returned to .500 with a win Tuesday. The Orioles’ rotation has been horrible, as Dave Cameron has noted, and Bundy is the good one. That Bundy is the good one is a problem, given his likely upcoming meeting with serious regression, given his middling strikeout rates and fly-ball tendencies. He has a 3.72 ERA, which is far removed from his 4.63 FIP and 5.28 xFIP. There’s not much reason to believe the rotation will be able to turn things around.

And this year, things are different in the AL East. Namely the Yankees are arriving ahead of schedule and appear ready to entrench themselves as a regular division contender, if not favorite, for years to come. The pre-season favorite and first place Red Sox have a young position player core, and a 4 1/2 game lead over the fourth-place Orioles.

In Dave’s recent look at buyers and sellers he listed the Orioles as a bubble team.

FoxSports reporter Ken Rosenthal suspects the Orioles could be a
“misguided buyer.” Reported Rosenthal:

“They’ve already told at least one rival club unequivocally —- much to that club’s surprise -— that they again plan to be buyers.”

Of course with Dan DuQuette and Buck Showalter only under contract through next season perhaps there is little desire and incentive to rebuild.

But you could certainly argue that the Orioles should sell, and that they should sell everything. I believe the Orioles are best served by beginning their rebuild now. FanGraphs projections have the Orioles posting a -12 run differential and 45-47 record for the rest of the season, which would give them an 80-82 record. While we project the Orioles, at the moment, to finish four games out of a playoff berth, even if the Orioles were to sneak in, they would likely need to win a wild-card game and try to navigate through the postseason with one of the weakest starting rotations in the game.

And looking beyond this season and next, things become bleaker.

The farm system is one of the game’s worst, ranking 28th in the industry, according to Baseball America, and the only AL East system not in the top 20. The Orioles have been frugal in the draft and most noticeably in Latin America, which Baseball America’s Ben Badler has laid out in detail.

The Orioles’ shortsightedness toward Latin America has damaged the franchise. They did sign Jomar Reyes out of the Dominican Republic three years ago for $350,000, but the system is otherwise devoid of homegrown international talent. There are under-the-radar prospects to be found in Latin America for bargain prices, but it’s hard for any team’s international scouts to sign quality players when ownership gives them so little to spend.

In the big picture, it takes relatively little investment to be competitive in Latin America and just spend what’s available in your international bonus pool. Instead, the Orioles have lost out on prospects and left themselves with a thin farm system. Beyond frugality, punting on Latin American signings is just poor strategy at the top of the organization.

The Orioles need young assets.

The Yankees are set to be a powerhouse for years to come, and the Red Sox are considerably more talented on paper. If the Orioles do not begin to recoup future assets for present talent they could make the dig out a much longer and more painful process.

The Orioles would be wise to follow the Branch Rickey axiom that it is better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. The Orioles face a sort of reverse but related Stanford Marshmallow dilemma. The Yankees have successfully passed the test to date, but the Orioles do not need patience; rather, they require action. A quick acceptance of their situation would allow them to recoup as many assets as possible. The longer the Orioles wait, the longer they are going to have to wait to become relevant again.

The Orioles ought to consider moving Manny Machado, working on the assumption Machado will test the market after next season. Zach Britton, once healthy, is another piece that should be moved eventually, and a deals for Adam Jones and Brad Brach, among others, should also be explored. Machado, Britton, Jones and Brach are all set to become free agents after 2018 season. Darren O’Day and Mark Trumbo will be free agents after the 2019 season.

Other potential trade chips include Seth Smith, who is set to become a free agent after the season, Welington Castillo is under contract for one more season, and Wade Miley has a $12 million option for 2018.

The Orioles could try to make one more run in 2018, but the environment does not appear any more favorable, and every day they wait to sell their assets lose value.

Rosenthal wrote that the Orioles “never would” send Machado to the Yankees or Red Sox. Teams are often hesitant to trade in division. But he wrote the Yankees and Red Sox are the contenders with the greatest third base needs. Given that there is a much lesser market for position players compared to pitchers, the Orioles ought to check in with every team, even the Yankees and Red Sox. The Orioles also ought to get over a stigma of intra-division trading, especially when franchises are headed in opposite directions. If, say, the Yankees or Red Sox are offering the best package for Machado, if they have the biggest need, there Orioles should consider it.

Maybe the Orioles have another unlikely run in them. Maybe they could enhance their roster in 2018 and make a postseason push. Maybe they can beat expectations again. Maybe. What is more likely is the core of this Orioles team will be broken up after the 2018 season and a rebuild will begin whether the club wants it or not. They Orioles can get ahead of it now and begin to infuse their system with much needed young assets, or they can go against the odds take one more shot but likely wind up in a deeper hole. For the Orioles to improve their organizational health, to maximize their playoff-appearance potential in the long term, their rebuild should begin sooner rather than later.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

The biggest problem is that the Orioles best assets that they would sell–Machado, Britton, Jones–have underperformed or are injured. I would rather keep the band together for another run in 2018 than sell low on them.

Also, can you imagine what would happen if the Red Sox traded for Machado? That would be wild.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Machado might be underperforming, but he’s still Manny Machado

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Agreed — I just about drooled thinking of Machado on the Red Sox! And if there were ever a GM to make the trade, it’s Dombrowski. Our biggest black hole of the season has been 3rd base.