O’s have a dilemma in Machado

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

In one dizzy­ing 72-hour stretch lead­ing up to the 2000 Ma­jor League Base­ball trade dead­line, the Bal­ti­more Orioles, with the sec­ond-high­est pay­roll and sec­ond-worst record in the Amer­i­can League, traded six pop­u­lar vet­eran play­ers — Mike Bordick, Harold Baines, Charles John­son, Mike Tim­lin, B.J. Surhoff and Will Clark — for an as­sort­ment of prospects and spare parts that, with a few years’ per­spec­tive, could be dis­tilled down to what it es­sen­tially amounted to: Melvin Mora, a two-time all-star for the mid-2000s Orioles, and a bag of balls.

De­spite post­ing los­ing records for the fol­low­ing 11 straight sea­sons, Orioles owner Peter An­ge­los never again ap­proved such a full-scale, mid­sea­son sell-off, cling­ing to the fan­tasy of field­ing com­pet­i­tive teams for the en­ter­tain­ment of his team’s fans, even as those teams crashed ev­ery sum­mer — an av­er­age of 69 wins from 2001 to 2011 — and at­ten­dance at Cam­den Yards fell to record lows.

But here, in the mid­sum­mer of 2017, with the Orioles floun­der­ing at 46-50 and on the edge of wild-card con­tention en­ter­ing Satur­day — their up-and-down sea­son epit­o­mized over the past week by three straight losses to the Chicago Cubs and four straight wins over the Texas Rangers — they are will­ing to down­size their ros­ter again, with cer­tain lim­i­ta­tions this time.

Hav­ing gained An­ge­los’s ap­proval, and bar­ring a sud­den change in plans, Orioles GM Dan Du­quette is pre­pared to deal from his sur­plus of val­ued re­liev­ers, in­clud­ing Zach Brit­ton, Brad Brach and Dar­ren O’Day, with catcher Wel­ing­ton Castillo and out­fielder Seth Smith per­haps also in play. The is­sue this time around is whether that strat­egy goes far enough.

The big ques­tion is whether it’s also time to part with Manny Machado.

Much has changed about the Orioles’ land­scape since the in­fa­mous 2000 fire sale. They no longer field top-five-in-the-game pay­rolls or draw 3 mil­lion-plus fans an­nu­ally. They are com­ing off a stretch of three play­off ap­pear­ances in a five-year stretch and the fran­chise’s long­est stretch of .500or-bet­ter sea­sons since the mid-1980s, but with an­nual at­ten­dances that con­sis­tently rank in the bot­tom half of the game.

They have also seen a se­ries of ag­gres­sive, prospects-for-veter­ans trades back­fire on them in the past four Julys, cost­ing them young pitch­ers Jake Ar­ri­eta (2013), Ed­uardo Ro­driguez (2014), Zach Davies (2015) and Ariel Mi­randa (2016) — all of whom went on to vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess with their new teams, while the veter­ans the Orioles re­ceived in re­turn failed to push them into the World Se­ries.

This is where the Orioles are in July of 2017: still 41/2 games out of a wild card en­ter­ing Satur­day night’s game, with three other teams ahead of them, while field­ing their old­est ros­ter in al­most a decade and in pos­ses­sion of a farm sys­tem rated among the worst in base­ball. The Rangers se­ries, fea­tur­ing one daz­zling pass through the Orioles’ ro­ta­tion, was a mi­rage: The Orioles don’t have the start­ing pitch­ing to con­tend for two more months, let alone com­pete in Oc­to­ber. And to fur­ther dec­i­mate their stock of prospects to chase a fan­tasy would only do more dam­age.

If you’ll re­call, the pre­vail­ing wis­dom re­gard­ing the Orioles at sea­son’s start was that they had a two-year win­dow — this sea­son and next — to win a ti­tle be­fore Brit­ton, Machado and Adam Jones reach free agency. But that wis­dom has been called into ques­tion over this sea­son’s first four months.

The ar­gu­ment for hold­ing on to Machado, their third base­man and fran­chise cor­ner­stone and ar­guably their best po­si­tion player since Cal Rip­ken, is a com­pelling one: Add a few ad­di­tional pieces this win­ter and take one last shot with a team con­structed around Machado in 2018. If sign­ing him to a long-term ex­ten­sion — an un­likely propo­si­tion given a price tag ex­pected to ap­proach if not ex­ceed $400 mil­lion — fails to pan out, and the Orioles drop out of con­tention by next July, they can al­ways deal him then. This ap­pears to be the ap­proach fa­vored by An­ge­los, who af­ter all is 87 years old and never in­clined to throw away years even as a younger man.

But the more re­al­is­tic view of the Orioles is that the cham­pi­onship win­dow, rather than be­ing open through next sea­son, is al­ready closed, and at this point Machado is a lux­ury they no longer need — un­less you are some­one to whom the dif­fer­ence be­tween 80 wins and 85 wins in 2018 truly mat­ters. The Bos­ton Red Sox and New York Yan­kees, both of whom have ap­peared beat­able in re­cent years, are as­cen­dant again, and there are few re­al­is­tic sce­nar­ios in which the Orioles can con­struct a 2018 ros­ter that closes the gap with them.

Trad­ing Machado now could trans­form the Orioles’ farm sys­tem overnight, in a way that even Brit­ton and Brach, two highly cov­eted re­liev­ers, could not. Even in the midst of an un­der­achiev­ing sea­son, he would be in the dis­cus­sion of the best play­ers ever dealt at the dead­line, given his age (25) and ac­com­plish­ments. He es­sen­tially has twice the value this July as he would have next, as a con­tender would get his ser­vices for two stretch runs, in­stead of one, be­fore he hits free agency.

Of course, Machado’s trans­for­ma­tive pow­ers as a trade piece as­sumes the Orioles’ front of­fice nails the re­turn, an as­sump­tion it hasn’t earned given its trade mis­fires in past sum­mers and some of the ad­di­tional busts (Ubaldo Jimenez comes to mind) of re­cent win­ters.

Smart peo­ple in base­ball have been wrong about the Orioles be­fore, with the pre­sea­son saber­met­ric pro­jec­tions con­sis­tently un­der­es­ti­mat­ing their win to­tals. What they have done these past half-dozen years, with three play­off ap­pear­ances, one di­vi­sion ti­tle and a trip to the AL Cham­pi­onship Se­ries in 2014, should not be min­i­mized, even if they fell short of the ul­ti­mate prize.

Some of the best teams in base­ball in re­cent years — the 2016 Cubs, the 2017 Hous­ton Astros — have will­ingly taken steps back to make their leaps for­ward. But the Orioles, by trad­ing Machado, would not nec­es­sar­ily set them­selves on some grue­some, five-year re­build­ing course, full of 100loss sea­sons. If it’s done right, with the team get­ting back a slew of high-level, high-im­pact, close-to-bigleague-ready play­ers — com­bined with some of the core play­ers they al­ready have — they could be right back to con­tention in 2019.

The Orioles don’t need to trade Machado; as an ar­bi­tra­tion-el­i­gi­ble player, his salary ($11.5 mil­lion) isn’t killing them this year, and even with a size­able raise, it won’t again next year. He would still be a rel­a­tive bar­gain. And they cer­tainly don’t want to trade the best player to wear an Orioles uni­form in a gen­er­a­tion or more. He is the kind of player you en­vi­sion build­ing around for a decade or two.

But when emo­tion and imag­i­na­tion are taken out of the equa­tion, and all that’s left is the cold, hard real­ity of base­ball eco­nom­ics and phi­los­o­phy, the smart thing to do would be to shop Machado this month, and if the right deal presents it­self — let’s de­fine that as a deal that puts the fran­chise on course for an era that equals or tops the one that may be end­ing now — jump at it.

PA­TRICK SEMANSKY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Manny Machado could be a cor­ner­stone player for the Orioles — or he could net them prospects.

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