The Orioles Might Have a Decision to Make by Craig Edwards February 1, 2017 History dictates that a single month of baseball — say, 20 or 30 games — isn’t sufficient to reveal which teams are legitimate playoff contenders and which aren’t. In some cases, a club jumps out to a hot start only to fade away as the season continues. This was the case both for the Chicago White Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies last year. Other teams might follow an arc more like the Texas Rangers in 2015, starting off slowly only to pick up speed by the end of the season. As such, it’s generally wise to refrain from reaching any strong conclusions about the standings in early May. That being said, I’ll be paying especially close attention to the Baltimore Orioles at the beginning of the 2017 season. The team could find themselves at a crossroads this year if contention seems unlikely, which could lead to one of the more interesting sell-offs in recent times. An initial glance at the Orioles roster might not reveal a team that’s primed to sell. Teams with a collection of free agents (like Kansas City) or in the midst of a rebuild (like a number of teams) would seem to provide better trading partners than Baltimore. Here are the Orioles’ pending free agents at the end of the 2017 season. Baltimore Orioles Pending Free Agents Name Age Projected WAR 2017 Salary Welington Castillo 30 1.7 $6.0 M Chris Tillman 29 1.5 $10.1 M Ubaldo Jimenez 33 1.4 $13.5 M J.J. Hardy 34 1.3 $14.0 M Seth Smith 34 1.3 $7.0 M Hyun Soo Kim 29 1.1 $4.2 M TOTAL 8.3 $54.8 M So that’s not really a lot to sell at the deadline. We don’t see a single player even projected to provide average production over the course of next season. The best might be Welington Castillo. Given that he was just signed for $6 million, however — and holds a player option for $7 million — it wouldn’t seem that his trade value would be quite high. Hardy is a glove-first shortstop while Smith and Kim are part-time bats. Jimenez would have to undergo a pretty big rebound to have decent value. That leaves Tillman as the only real potential trade chip. However, if the Baltimore is out of contention in a few months, they’ll need to make some major decisions on whether it’s time to rebuild. The players above are fairly easily replaceable for 2018 given the money they are currently earning. The Orioles top prospect, Chance Sisco, can probably assume Castillo’s duties after the latter is gone, and Trey Mancini should be able to provide at least average production with the bat, even if his glove doesn’t provide much. With the the money coming off the books, the team could go out and sign two of the best starting pitchers in what’s shaping up to be a very good class next winter. If you took the above group off the Orioles, replaced two positions with younger players and the two pitchers with serious upgrades, the Orioles could easily contend in 2018 even if they fared poorly this season. Signing free-agent pitchers to massive contracts isn’t generally a plan that works in the long term, however. The employment of such a plan might cause the 2018 Orioles to resemble a more expensive version of the 2017 Royals, and render future Orioles clubs similar to the current iteration of the Detroit Tigers. And this is where things become important. Consider the players who are signed through 2018 and who could become free agents after two more seasons with the Orioles. Baltimore Orioles Pending Free Agents in 2018 Name Age Projected WAR 2018 Projected Salary Manny Machado 24 6.3 $17.0 M Adam Jones 31 2.3 $17.3 M Wade Miley 30 1.8 $12.0 M Zach Britton 29 2.1 $17.0 M TOTAL 12.5 $63.3 M This group is considerably more impressive than the one composed of players currently in the last year of their contracts. Here we find one of the very best players in baseball — maybe the best in the non-Mike Trout division — the best Orioles player in the last decade, one of the very best closers in the game, and a close to average starting pitcher. These four players represent roughly one-third of the Orioles’ projected WAR in 2017, with Chris Davis (2.5) and Kevin Gausman (3.1) representing the only other players who receive above-average projections. The Orioles could take this group, make a few major free-agent signings, and attempt to contend in 2018. Alternatively, they could try to accelerate their rebuilding process. Last season, the Yankees got a haul for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, and there’s little reason to think that Zach Britton would be worth any less if he continues to pitch well this season. Miley is a nice starter to have, but if he’s pitching reasonably well he will have some trade value. Brad Brach could be added to this group in a bullpen selloff, as could Darren O’Day, though he’s signed through 2019. Adam Jones has a no-trade clause, but if the Orioles intended not to compete in 2018, he might reconsider. Then there’s Machado. Back in July, Dave Cameron said Machado’s trade value ranked 11th in all of baseball, citing his ability to hit free agency after 2018 as the only thing feature keeping him out of the top 10. He’s likely to be worth slightly less than that at the trade deadline this year, given that a year has gone by. That said, even one-and-a-half years of Manny Machado, baseball superstar is going to net a huge return. He might not net Chris Sale’s return, but that package isn’t too far off — if it’s off at all. If the Orioles sell at the deadline, they could head into 2018 with payroll commitments equaling roughly half the $160 million that they have devoted to this year’s payroll, a high draft choice, and four to six new very good prospects who could help them contend by 2019. They could hold onto Kevin Gausman if they wished. They wouldn’t have to deplete the farm system, and if they wanted to, they could sign any one (or two) of the major free agents after 2018, including their own Manny Machado. If the Orioles contend again this season, much of the above will be moot. There will be no reason to concede this year, and they will need the 2018 class to remain in contention. Then, they will have little choice but to go all-in for the 2018 season in Machado’s last season before free agency. If they’re out of contention, though, they will have to make a very difficult decision — not whether to punt 2017, which would already be gone at that point — but whether they want to sacrifice 2018 to have a better shot at contending in 2019 and beyond.