Orioles reset: The Manny Machado trade started Baltimore’s rebuild 5 years ago. Here are 5 moves from it paying off now.

17 July 2023

Five years ago Tuesday, the Orioles’ rebuild began.

One could argue for earlier, when it was obvious from practically the jump that Baltimore’s 2018 season was going nowhere, or later, when general manager Mike Elias was hired to steward the process. But when the Orioles traded star infielder Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 18, 2018, it marked the end of an era and the start of a project that was painful both in terms of the players it sent away and the on-field product it produced.

It’s plausible that other approaches could have been taken, that Baltimore didn’t have to be one of the majors’ five worst teams with one of its five lowest payrolls year after year. Yet, the rebuild led to here — a young Orioles team that’s won eight straight around an All-Star break it entered with the franchise’s best first half in more than a quarter century.

And it started when Baltimore sent Machado, in his final season before free agency, to Los Angeles for five prospects. Only one of them, right-hander Dean Kremer, remains with the Orioles. His development into a solid major league starter is likely more than worth half a season of Machado, even if Yusniel Diaz, viewed as the centerpiece of the trade, and the others amounted to little with Baltimore. In the finale of the Orioles’ three-game series with the Dodgers this week, Kremer will face his former organization for the first time.

Machado was the first to go in a selloff overseen by then-GM Dan Duquette that overwhelmingly did not pan out. Baltimore’s remaining returns for the losses of Kevin Gausman, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day are pitchers Bruce Zimmermann and Dillon Tate; the former has been an up-and-down bulk arm, while the latter was a key reliever the past three seasons who has yet to pitch in 2023 because of an elbow injury.

The path to this point was not without missteps for Elias, either, and he would acknowledge as much. But that the Orioles will enter the five-year anniversary of the Machado trade in reach of the top of the American League East speaks to how successful many of the moves made during their rebuild eventually became. That benchmark offers the opportunity to acknowledge the most impactful moves in the stretch between the Machado deal that Duquette called “the first step in a new direction” and the 2022 trade deadline, after which Elias declared “it’s liftoff from here for this team.”

It’s likely not fair and perhaps premature to judge the rebuild in this manner. Prospects acquired in Elias’ trades over the previous four seasons are still climbing Baltimore’s farm system. Organizational investments in technology, Latin America and other areas are relatively nascent. Moves not made have been perhaps just as important; Anthony Santander’s name has frequented trade rumors in recent years, but he remains in Baltimore as the club’s three-hole hitter.

That said, these five rebuild-era moves have proven to play the largest roles in getting the 2023 Orioles where they are.

1. Drafting future No. 1 prospects Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson in 2019

In trading away Machado, the Orioles lost the face of the franchise. They replaced him 11 months later when they drafted Adley Rutschman with the first overall pick which was a product of their disastrous 2018. He’s more than lived up to the selection, transforming the Orioles since his arrival while finishing as the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year last year and making his first All-Star appearance last week.

Perhaps more impressive is that Gunnar Henderson, Baltimore’s second selection that draft at No. 42 overall, eventually succeeded Rutschman as baseball’s top prospect, the first time Baseball America ranked two prospects from the same team’s draft class No. 1 in consecutive years. His own Rookie of the Year campaign got off to a slow start before emerging as a force atop Baltimore’s lineup of late.

2. Selecting Tyler Wells in the second round of the 2020 Rule 5 draft

The Orioles spent much of the rebuild desperate for pitching. Perhaps their best find in that area came in the Rule 5 draft, where it’s uncommon for teams to make any selections and rare for them to make two. But the latter of the Orioles’ pair of picks in 2020′s has emerged as perhaps their top starter this season.

When Baltimore selected Tyler Wells from the Minnesota Twins, he had made only six appearances above High-A and hadn’t pitched in two years after undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and losing the 2020 season as all minor leaguers did. He opened 2021 as a mop-up reliever before pitching his way into closing opportunities. Despite working under pitch and inning limits out of the rotation in 2022, he was the Orioles’ most consistent starter in the first half before being limited by injuries after the break. This year, he’s one of only a handful of pitchers who have gone at least five innings in all of their outings and leads all MLB starters in WHIP.

3. Getting Kyle Bradish for Dylan Bundy

A year after drafting Machado third overall, the Orioles selected Dylan Bundy fourth in 2011. Both reached the majors in the 2012 season that ended Baltimore’s 15-year postseason drought and sparked a five-year run in which they were the AL’s best team. But elbow and shoulder injuries cost Bundy much of that stretch and sapped him of his potential.

After the 2019 season, the Orioles traded Bundy and his final two years of team control to the Los Angeles Angels for four pitching prospects. Unlike the Machado trade, the perceived centerpiece of this deal has panned out as such. With 7 1/3 scoreless innings Sunday, Kyle Bradish has a 3.05 ERA in 17 starts this year, and in 30 starts since coming off the injured list last summer, he has a 3.15 ERA.

Two of the other prospects acquired, Kyle Brnovich and Zach Peek, both underwent Tommy John surgery last year, but Bradish alone has made the swap worthwhile.

4. Trading Jorge López for Yennier Cano and more

This trade undoubtedly hurt the Orioles’ 2022 playoff chances, but it also has seemed to boost their hopes in 2023 and beyond.

The day of the 2022 trade deadline, Baltimore sent Jorge López, its All-Star closer, to the Twins for four pitchers. At the time of the trade, the Orioles were 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot and had baseball’s fourth-lowest bullpen ERA at 3.05. Although Félix Bautista smoothly transitioned from López’s setup man to his replacement as closer, other relievers didn’t handle their higher-leverage roles as effectively, with the bullpen posting a 4.39 ERA after the trade as Baltimore missed the playoffs.

Yet the deal netted the Orioles a late-inning replacement for López and three more pitching prospects. Yennier Cano is baseball’s best breakout story, pitching his way onto the All-Star team after not making Baltimore’s opening-day roster. He and Bautista have formed one of the sport’s best backend bullpen duos, with Cano’s sinker-changeup combo routinely eliciting strikeouts and weak contact. Left-hander Cade Povich, also part of the return from Minnesota, could be the Orioles’ top pitching prospect by this time next year.

5. Opening bullpen spots by dealing Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser

When the Orioles traded relievers Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser to the Miami Marlins on the cusp of the 2022 season, it appeared to be an early sign that Baltimore was headed toward another year as one of baseball’s worst teams.

It brought Baltimore three minor leaguers and a draft pick the organization used on outfielder Jud Fabian, its No. 13 prospect. But more importantly as far as 2023 is concerned, the trade allowed López to emerge as the Orioles’ closer and likely helped Bautista, Bryan Baker and Cionel Pérez make the team’s opening-day bullpen, with each playing key roles in Baltimore’s breakout season and carrying them into this year.

Baker and Pérez came to Baltimore as waiver claims the preceding offseason, with infielders Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo also arriving via that method during the rebuild as part of a collection of small moves that have built toward this big season.

What’s to come?

Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore’s top pitching prospect, makes his return to the majors to open the series with the Dodgers. Should Rutschman, Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser join him in Monday’s lineup, it would feature five of the players Baseball America ranked as the Orioles’ top six prospects entering 2022.

The Orioles begin the week only one game back of the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East after entering July with a 6 1/2-game deficit. After three games with the Dodgers, Baltimore plays four at the Rays in a series that will likely determine who leaves the week the division leader.

What was good?

Santander has recorded a hit during each game of the Orioles’ winning streak, going 11-for-30 with three home runs, three doubles and four walks. One of those homers jolted Baltimore to a 3-0 lead Sunday as it finished off a sweep of the Marlins.

After ending April hitting .213/.280/.362, Santander is batting .275/.344/.503.

What wasn’t?

Cedric Mullins’ right quadriceps tightness came just as it seemed the Orioles’ center fielder was getting his legs back underneath him. Mullins missed 20 games with a right groin strain, and in 14 contests between his return and the end of the first half, he hit .192 with a 27.9% strikeout rate. He went 3-for-4 in the first game of the second half with a home run and a steal and recorded an RBI single in his first at-bat the next day before suffering the injury running the bases on a foul ball. The Orioles hope his absence will be brief, but a return to that form could be just as important.

On the farm

It was perhaps impossible to steal the spotlight from top prospect Jackson Holliday’s Double-A debut, but John Rhodes made his best effort. Baltimore’s third-round pick in 2021 and No. 26 prospect, the 22-year-old outfielder homered three times Friday for Bowie and delivered game-tying and walk-off singles Sunday.

Rhodes’ first home run, an opposite-field shot to right, pleased Bowie manager Kyle Moore more than the two he launched to left, given how much he and hitting coach Sherman Johnson have emphasized to Rhodes the importance of going the other way.

“I talk to John, like, every day about hitting the ball opposite field,” Moore said. “I think a lot of these young players because of the metrics of exit velocity and launch angle understand that I can hit a ball much harder if I pull it. That can sometimes be the biggest curse of all time because the pitcher knows that, as well, right? So for Rhodesy, it’s been a lot about, ‘Hey, man, you have to drive the ball to right field to open up left field for you.’

“This is the first level where you absolutely have to hit the fastball to the opposite-field gap. If you don’t, they will kill you, and he’s made a really good adjustment.”

Holliday, meanwhile, went 6-for-12 in his first three Double-A games.


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