On July 2, 2013, the Baltimore Orioles traded starting pitcher Jake Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop to the Chicago Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger. If you are a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, that sentence may conjure up several feelings. As I typed it, I took a few seconds to put my head down, curl up into a ball, and gently rock myself as I attempt to come to grips with what looks like one of the worst trades in franchise history.
Dan Duquette hasn’t missed on many moves in his time at the helm in Baltimore, but boy oh boy did he whiff here.
If you’ve forgotten, or tried your best to block it from your memory, Arrieta was a fifth-round pick of the Orioles in 2007 out of TCU. The 6’4″ right-hander oozed potential. Armed with a fastball that could touch the upper 90’s and a curveball and changeup that projected as future strikeout pitches, Arrieta could not do the one thing that is important for pitching success — throw the darn ball over the plate. While racking up a 20-25 record with a 5.46 in 69 games with the Orioles, Arrieta walked 4.0 per nine. At the time he was traded, he had made five starts for the 2013 Orioles with a 7.23 ERA and walk rate of 6.5. Despite the struggles with the strike zone, there was still reason to believe Arrieta could be an impact starter in the Major Leagues. He struck out 7.0 per nine in his time with the Orioles, and was striking out nearly a batter an inning at the time of the trade.
Arrieta’s fortunes turned instantly when he went over to the National League. He went 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA in his first nine starts with the Cubs immediately following the trade. Over 43 starts in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Arrieta is 20-10 with a 2.59 ERA, and is striking out 9.4 per nine while limiting his walks to just 2.1 per nine.
Alas, the 2013 Orioles were on the fringes of contention in the American League East. After taking the world by storm in 2012, the Orioles and their front office were desperate to prove they were no one-hit wonder. So, cutting ties with a struggling 27-year-old in his fourth season made sense at the time. In return for Arrieta, the Orioles got 15 mediocre starts from Feldman, a perfectly mediocre pitcher in his own right. Feldman went 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA and then went on his merry way to Houston, where he has continued to serve as a warm body on the mound every fifth day. Since landing with the Orioles, Feldman has a 17-22 record and a 4.08 ERA. When trying to define “replacement level player” there are few better examples than Scott Feldman.
Of course in all of this talk about Feldman, I have neglected the real steal in the trade — Clevenger. Clevenger was such a notable part of the trade that a tweet by Keith Law announcing the trade referred to him as Tony. As far as I can tell, a Tony Clevenger has not suited up for the Baltimore Orioles, but Steve has, and he has slashed .218/.276/.304 in his Major League career. Outstanding.
Orioles acquire Scott Feldman and Tony Clevenger from the Cubs for Jake Arrietta, Pedro Strop, and int’l bonus slots.
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) July 2, 2013
The deal made sense at the time, but it was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. The Orioles felt they had to contend in 2013, and when you make a trade based on that logic, you will usually regret it. Feldman was not the answer that was going to allow the 2013 Orioles to catch the Boston Red Sox or Tampa Bay Rays. That Arrieta struggled in Baltimore is in a nut-shell why the Orioles struggled for years to win baseball games and develop starting pitching. Arrieta was called up to the Major Leagues before he was ready. Plain and simple. The difficulties he had throwing strikes at the big league level should have come as no surprise to anyone. Arrieta had walked over four hitters a game during his time in the minors. Despite having all of the tools to be successful in the majors, he could not throw strikes, and thus, was smacked around like a beach ball when the Orioles trotted him out.
Maybe Arrieta would have blossomed with another season in the Orioles farm system. My bet is on that scenario not playing out, however. The Orioles are not an organization that excels at developing young pitchers (see Cabrera, Daniel). Arrieta went to the Cubs and immediately stopped walking hitters. What does that tell you about the Orioles’ abilities to coach raw pitching talent?
The Orioles did what they felt was best in the moment in trading Arrieta. In hindsight they came out on the short end of the stick. Dan Duquette has helped the Orioles immensely during his tenure with minor moves like this one, but if given a chance to redo this deal, you have to believe he would.