As Orioles exceed expectations, trade deadline gives front office the chance to do the same | ANALYSIS

21 July 2023

If it were up to Kyle Gibson, the Orioles would be all-in on 2023.

The 35-year-old starting pitcher reached the World Series last year with the Philadelphia Phillies and would love a repeat with Baltimore after signing a one-year, $10 million deal this offseason. But Gibson also understands the front office will approach the Aug. 1 trade deadline with more than the following three months in mind.

“They’re working with a vision that’s not just this year, but it’s this year and five years, right?” Gibson said. “They have a lot different job. For me, it’s like, yeah, I would worry about this year and that’s it, and then when you hit the next year, worry about next year. But obviously, that’s not how a Major League Baseball team is able to operate.”

Fueled by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ “liftoff from here” comment in the wake of last year’s deadline — in which the Orioles still acted as sellers while in reach of a postseason spot — there were thoughts the offseason would bring flashy moves and big expenditures. Instead, the club made modest, complementary upgrades, such as signing Gibson. The trend could carry into this deadline.

Amid pipedreams of a splash in the form of a trade for two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani, the Orioles dipped their toe in the water by landing Oakland Athletics reliever Shintaro Fujinami on Wednesday, their first time on the buying side of an in-season prospect-for-player trade in Elias’ five campaigns.

Any addition is a welcome sign in an Orioles clubhouse that has spent this time of year in recent seasons losing major league teammates rather than gaining them. But the next 11 days give Baltimore’s front office a chance to make significant upgrades to a roster that has already proven itself quite capable.

Under Elias, the Orioles have methodically worked to stockpile young talent, with those efforts beginning to pay off with a major league team that holds a one-game lead in the daunting American League East after Thursday night’s victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. Elias has been steadfast in his goal to build a team and organization capable of competing in baseball’s best division for several years to come, spreading the Orioles’ eggs across numerous baskets rather than investing them all in one.

That measured effort has produced baseball’s top-ranked farm system, while the major league team is one of four that entered Thursday with a winning record and an offense and pitching staff younger than league average, according to Baseball-Reference. Baltimore is situated for success now and in the future, and it’s hard to imagine its front office shortening the length of its competitive window to widen what is only its beginning, given how that group has operated to this point.

The club has already acquired a rental in Fujinami, but the lone minor leaguer Baltimore forfeited, left-hander Easton Lucas, was a Triple-A reliever who turns 27 in September. In the Orioles’ two other buy-side trades under Elias — both in the past seven months — they parted with rookie-level first baseman and outfielder Luis De La Cruz for backup catcher James McCann and the two years left on his contract with the New York Mets, while Darell Hernaiz, who was among their top 15 or so prospects but seventh among infielders, went to Oakland to get left-hander Cole Irvin, who had four years of team control left, and minor league pitcher Kyle Virbitsky.

The Orioles, as Elias said in December, “have the capital to trade for basically anyone who’s on the market,” and they still do now because they didn’t pull from the top levels of their farm system then. The Orioles have never been this clear of a contender at a trade deadline during Elias’ time, so it’s not fully known how they’ll act from this position. But given they’re an organization that has operated as if there’s more value in six-plus years of a handful of cost-controlled players than a single playoff push from one already in his prime, it’s unlikely the Orioles would be willing to put together the level of package that figures to be required to land Ohtani should the Los Angeles Angels decide to trade the pending free agent.

Even though the Orioles have the sport’s deepest farm system, with the infield a particular area of strength, they would be pulling from it for what is bound to be a half-season acquisition. Ohtani’s status as baseball’s best player is expected to produce a record contract this winter, one whose average annual value could approach the $61 million that represented Baltimore’s total payroll entering this season. Elias said over the winter payroll will “steadily increase,” and a near-doubling would not qualify as such.

But for that handful of months, Ohtani, as he would for any team, would undoubtedly improve Baltimore’s lineup and rotation, providing the Orioles one of baseball’s best hitters and the top-of-the-rotation starter they failed to secure in the offseason. Given Ohtani pitches every six games instead of the typical five, he could join Baltimore’s rotation without forcing anyone else out, likewise allowing the Orioles to provide extra rest to a group of starters that, beyond Gibson, all entered this season with fewer than 40 career starts in the major leagues and could need their innings managed later this year.

The club also has Irvin, moved to the bullpen to make way for top prospect Grayson Rodriguez, available and could get left-hander John Means, the team’s top starter during its rebuild, back before the end of the season. But one pitcher already removed from the rotation twice and another coming back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery being Baltimore’s best reinforcements enhances the need for another starter, Ohtani or otherwise. Other notable starters approaching free agency who could be available include Lucas Giolito of the Chicago White Sox, Blake Snell of the San Diego Padres and Jordan Montgomery of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Elias often notes how difficult it is for teams to come to an agreement on a trade, especially when 28 others could nudge their way into negotiations at any time. Plenty of organizations figure to be involved in the Ohtani discussions if the Angels, on the cusp of contention, elect to sell, and the same will likely apply for other starters. Even with Fujinami, Baltimore could use another reliever. Every contending team will seek to bolster its pitching staff, though, and it’s unclear whether the Orioles will be willing to part with the prospects necessary to win a bidding war.

But that the Orioles are even in the position and conversation to acquire Ohtani speaks to their progress in recent years. They have the AL’s best record two seasons after comfortably holding its worst.

By acquiring Fujinami, the front office has already taken a step to address a need with another arm to bridge to All-Star relievers Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista, but he doesn’t need to be the only newcomer. The Orioles don’t have to acquire Ohtani to make a splash or even to make the playoffs, though they should be aiming higher than that. There are other players available who would improve their chances of success in 2023 without being as detrimental to their hopes for 2024 and beyond, even if those additions might still require Baltimore to part with players higher up its prospect rankings than Hernaiz and Lucas were.

For the second time in as many years, the Orioles’ roster has exceeded expectations, including those of the front office. Before this trade deadline, that group has the chance to do the same.


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