Sometime soon, the Orioles are going to trade their best player. Sometime soon, the Orioles are going to trade one of the best players, period. I’ve seen people worrying that the Orioles might just hang onto Manny Machado through the end of the year, and I understand that, historically, trading with the Orioles has always been complicated, but that would be a bridge too far. There’s just about no way the Orioles would settle for free-agent compensation, here. There’s a blockbuster trade to be made, and there are interesting prospects to be acquired.
So, a Machado trade is virtually inevitable. There is no shortage of suitors. Two factors make this situation unusual. One, Machado is very good. Many good players are traded around the deadline, but few are at Machado’s level. Two, Machado will become a free agent in a matter of months. He’s a rental. Some suitor might think they could win Machado over down the stretch, but that’s unlikely to lead to much of a bargain. Machado’s not signing a contract extension before he hits the market. This should be interpreted first and foremost as a short-term move.
It can be hard to know what would be an appropriate price. How much should someone be willing to give up for Machado? For how much should the Orioles be willing to settle? To this point, the Orioles have asked for more than anyone’s been willing to surrender. That much is self-evident, since Machado is available but there hasn’t yet been an agreement. I think it’s useful to dig into the history. Every trade negotiation is different, conducted under unique circumstances, but there’s value in understanding the precedent. Trades don’t follow precedent in the way that, say, arbitration does, but we can get an idea of what’s going to happen by looking at what has happened. Time to consider a whole bunch of names.
Over the course of the past decade, there’s been a total of 13 midseason trades involving 5+ WAR players. I consider Machado to be at that level. Nine of those trades have been for rentals. For guys who were going to become free agents. This is the sample I started with, but then I realized even a decade might be too much time, since so much about player and roster evaluation has changed. How relevant to Machado is the 2008 Mark Teixeira trade, or the 2009 Matt Holliday trade? Teams evaluate their positions and resources in more analytical ways. Teams generally aren’t so, I don’t know, emotional about the power of midseason upgrades.
So I narrowed to the past few years, still looking at rentals, and I made a few 5-WAR exceptions. As far as I can tell, there are five decent and recent trade comps. There’s the 2015 trade of Johnny Cueto. There’s the 2015 trade of David Price. There’s the 2015 trade of Yoenis Cespedes. There’s the 2017 trade of J.D. Martinez. And there’s the 2017 trade of Yu Darvish. None of these are perfect, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. Nevertheless, let’s look at some quick summaries.
Cueto trade, 2015
Cueto was traded for pitcher Brandon Finnegan, pitcher Cody Reed, and pitcher John Lamb. Finnegan had major-league experience, and he had entered the year as the Baseball America No. 55 prospect. Entering the following year, Reed was ranked as the No. 34 prospect. He was dealt from Double-A, while Lamb was dealt from Triple-A.
Price trade, 2015
Price was traded for pitcher Daniel Norris, pitcher Matthew Boyd, and pitcher Jairo Labourt. Norris had major-league experience, and he had entered the year as the No. 18 prospect. Boyd also had major-league experience. Labourt was dealt from High-A.
Cespedes trade, 2015
Cespedes was traded for pitcher Michael Fulmer and pitcher Luis Cessa. Fulmer was dealt from Double-A, and entering the following year, he was ranked as the No. 47 prospect. Cessa was dealt from Triple-A.
Martinez trade, 2017
Darvish trade, 2017
Darvish was traded for outfielder(?) Willie Calhoun, pitcher A.J. Alexy, and infielder Brendon Davis. Calhoun had entered the year as the No. 92 prospect, and the following year he ranked as the No. 36 prospect. He was dealt from Triple-A. Alexy was dealt from Single-A, and so was Davis.
The Martinez trade is an easy one to recall, and even at the time the return package was regarded as light, but it’s important to understand that Machado is better than Martinez was. It’s no less important to understand that rentals don’t go for prospect premiums, but while Martinez has been an elite hitter, Machado is far more useful in the field. I don’t see Machado getting traded for a package that doesn’t include a ranked prospect.
And there’s something else about Darvish, Cueto, and Price — they’re pitchers. I think pitchers tend to get a little more around deadline time, because the thing about really good pitchers in the playoffs is you can use them more often than you can during the regular season. This is also why great relievers get moved around. The playoffs have more off days between games, and no one uses a five-man playoff rotation. Position players don’t quite get the same bump. They get to play 100% of the time, instead of, say, 90-95% of the time, but compared to the pitcher bump, that’s negligible. An ace starting pitcher might make as many as three starts in a seven-game series.
I’m not saying you should throw those four trades out. They all help to illustrate the same point. But I keep getting drawn to the Cespedes move. Now, again, Machado is probably a little better than Cespedes was. Cespedes really took off after the trade to the Mets. But Cespedes was seen as a lineup-changing hitter, who could play great defense in one position, and who could play worse defense in a more challenging position. Cespedes was a strong left fielder with lousy numbers in center. Machado is a strong third baseman with lousy numbers at short.
Cespedes was dealt for a couple of advanced pitching prospects. Fulmer, of course, has worked out well, and he was easily the more valuable pitcher of the two. When Kiley ran a midseason prospect update in August of 2015, Fulmer was given a Future Value rating of 50. That would put him around where, say, Ian Anderson and Shane Bieber are now. Cessa wasn’t nothing, and he made sense as a second piece, but the perception was that he had a lot less upside. Could make it to the majors, but he probably wouldn’t become an impact piece.
It’s been my gut feeling for a while that, ultimately, Machado will get traded for a package of arms. From the Orioles’ side, they’re in need of…pretty much everything, and it could be easy for them to sell. Trade Machado for pitchers, and maybe one or two of them are in the majors as early as September. From the other side, it could also be easy to sell, because Machado is an elite player, and pitching prospects are far less reliable than hitting prospects. Study after study has shown that pitching prospects turn into lesser-value players on average, in large part because of the injury risk. Young pitchers are valuable players to have, but you can trade them and emphasize the downside. You can get them and emphasize the upside. Trading for a good young position player is so much more difficult to do, unless the guy comes with question marks like Willie Calhoun.
The Cespedes trade works as a precedent. The others here do, too, but I think the Cespedes trade is the closest comp. Because Machado is probably better than Cespedes was, that’s something to factor in. For example, Machado will probably get three players, instead of two. The second piece could be a little better than Cessa. And the primary piece could be a little better than Fulmer. But this is where my expectations are going to go. Maybe a trade is headlined by Corbin Burnes. Maybe a trade is headlined by Justus Sheffield, or Kyle Wright. It’s on the teams to put the actual players together, in order to find an agreement. But no one needs to be attempting this blind. We’ve seen great rentals moved before, and it stands to reason this trade should look like those ones did.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.