The Baltimore Orioles have to ask themselves a franchise-altering question: Do they go all-in on 2018, or begin to start over?
Last season, the Orioles disappointed many. After making it to the AL Wild Card game the year prior, Buck Showalter‘s ballclub failed to make it back to the postseason in 2017, coming in last place in the AL East with just 75 wins. Throughout the year, pitching was Baltimore’s Achilles heel. Finishing the year 27th in team ERA (4.97), their rotation was abysmal. Whether it be the regression of Kevin Gausman or simply their inability to be a consistent bunch, the O’s rotation had many flaws and held the team back as a whole.
The instant, gut-reaction to their woes on the rubber would be to prioritize starting pitching in free agency or via trade. Starters up for grabs on the free agent market include Jake Arrieta (who will likely be a long shot to return to the Chesapeake Bay area based on how his first stint there ended), Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Andrew Cashner, and CC Sabathia, to name a few; the O’s could very easily ink a starter or two and begin to establish a respectable rotation.
Adding a strikeout pitcher such as Darvish, an efficient starter like Cobb or Cashner, and getting a bounce back year from Gausman (who pitched to a 4.68 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 2017) could shore up Baltimore’s pitching staff and make them a Wild Card threat. A respectable and reliable rotation coupled with a lineup that features the likes of Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Tim Beckham, Trey Mancini, and Chris Davis would make the Orioles a legitimate Wild Card threat yet again.
The problem with signing pitching is that it will cost a hefty sum, and if management goes all-in on doing so, committing $100+ million, the Orioles will have a near-impossible task to overcome next offseason.
After the 2018 season, three crucial, backbone players hit the free agent market on the Orioles: Machado, Jones, and closer Zach Britton.
All three veterans will be sough-after products on the open market to begin with, but if Baltimore spends big on pitching over the next month, it will have its hands full next winter.
Machado has become one of the best third basemen in all of baseball. Whether it be his power presence (Machado has hit 30+ home runs in each of the last three season), line-drive bat, durability, or smooth glove, the Orioles’ homegrown corner infielder has become a cornerstone piece of their franchise. And based on his track record, he may very well cash in on a contract in excess of $200+ million; he’s that good.
Much like Machado, Jones is also a landmark figure in Camden Yards. In his ten years with the Orioles, Jones has been one of the best center fielders in baseball. He gets behind fly balls as well as anyone in the majors and is always a threat at the plate, whether it be in terms of power or simply coming up clutch; the 32-year-old’s potential departure will be like pulling a tooth for the Orioles.
Then there’s Britton. Last year, Britton dealt with a forearm strain and was unable to dominate at the level he did the two years prior, 2016 in particular. Converting 47-of-47 save opportunities, while pitching to an astonishing 0.53 ERA and 0.84 WHIP, the southpaw was the game’s best closer in 2016; many even clamored for him to be a finalist for the AL Cy Young. Just a year removed from that success and getting healthier as the offseason goes on, Britton should be able to rekindle those heroics in 2018.
Machado, Jones, and Britton would all have significant trade value, despite hitting free agency in over a year. Machado is arguably the best third baseman in the game and would certainly garner interest from teams looking to make a run for it all, regardless of whether he agrees to sign an extension on the spot. Jones would instantly surpass Andrew McCutchen as the best center fielder available via trade, and Britton is regarded as one of the game’s best closers; in a league that’s becoming heavily reliant on bullpen production, Britton would, for sure, draw a crowd.
If the Orioles decide that they’re going to stand pat and not spend big on pitching, they must commence the semi-rebuild — which means shopping Machado, Jones, and Britton. All three of them have been key contributors and identity for this Orioles’ team; management is simply not going to be able to replace them. But the Orioles are in the worst possible state that sports teams can find themselves in: not good, not horrible, just mediocre.
If the Orioles decide that the existing team with a bolstered rotation can compete, they should be all-in on the 2018 season. The second AL Wild Card is no lock, even with the Minnesota Twins breaking out to win 26 more games than they did in 2016 — going 85-77 in 2017. On the other hand, this team, as currently constructed, is not going to the playoffs and if they decide to not be players in free agency, then it’s time to start thinking about the future.
A trio of Schoop, Beckham, and Mancini is a good nucleus to begin building around; the Orioles could add onto that core by trading their trio of 2018 free agents.
Moving on and accepting that it’s time to close the book on an era is a daunting task for any team. Moving Machado, Jones, and Britton, or two out of the three, will hurt; they’re the backbone of this Orioles team.
The Orioles can compete in the American League with the appropriate pitching staff in place — no doubt. But if management isn’t going to fork over the money necessary in order to improve that facet of their ballclub, then it’s time to begin a new chapter of Orioles baseball.
If Dan Duquette and company decide that they want to pay whatever they have to in order to keep Machado, regardless of not being able to realistically make the postseason, that’s perfectly fine; he has become the face of that franchise. Outside of that scenario, it’s pointless to retain all three, with a below-average pitching staff in place.
The Orioles have to choose: get pitching and go for it next season, or get what they can for their impending free agents while they still can?