Could the Orioles' Manny Machado saga have been easily avoided?

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Even in a family whose baseball preferences don't include the Orioles, nearly every holiday conversation about baseball this year centered around the future of Manny Machado and the Orioles' organization as a whole.

As has become clear publicly, there's no prevailing answer in terms of the thinking or the rationale that brought the Orioles to this spot with one of the game's brightest talents. But the fact they're in such a difficult position in the first place belies that fact itself — the Orioles' own competitive window and recent success coincided with Machado's highest value. And now they've arrived where they is little other recourse possible.

Dissenters would say the easy solution would be to have re-signed him early, before his arbitration salaries ballooned and the $300 million price tag that people threw around for he and Bryce Harper seemed possible.

Perhaps more earnest extension talks were required from both sides, but absent that, when was the time to move on from Machado?

It surely wasn't the 2013 offseason when he was just 21 years old and coming off an All-Star season punctuated by a significant knee injury, nor the following year when another knee injury limited him to 82 games.

A year later, he finished fourth in the MVP voting and posted a 7.1-win season, per Baseball-Reference.com's wins above replacement (WAR), while playing Gold Glove defense and hitting .286 with 35 homers and an .861 OPS.

At age 23, his value may have never been higher on the market, but the same can be said for his value to the Orioles. They might have explored a fair extension or a trade earlier that winter, but once they committed to bringing this core back with the free agent contracts for Darren O'Day and Chris Davis, Machado became vital to maximizing the present window.

That also applied the year after, when he posted another All-Star season and career highs in home runs (.37), average (.294), and OPS (.876) while securing another Gold Glove and a second consecutive top-5 MVP finish.

Trading Machado at that deadline, with the Orioles 16 games above .500 and leading the AL East on July 31, would have been unfathomable. And if you approached last offseason the way the Orioles did, under the idea that they had a team built for a much deeper playoff run than the one it enjoyed because of the decision to save Zach Britton in the Wild Card game, there's no sense in dealing away the club's best player when the expectation is for that to be the case in 2017, too.

A complete collapse by the starting rotation meant everything changed in 2017, and the Orioles are staring down a short-term and long-term future that's not terribly appealing. There’s no doubt the money committed to Davis, O’Day and Mark Trumbo might have been better spent on Machado, but those can’t be changed. Flipping a year of Machado for what the club deems sufficient value — two young starting pitchers—could have changed at least some of that equation, but the only thing that could have changed this absent the Orioles handing out a massive contract extension was dumb luck.

Moving Machado at any point earlier than now would have undermined their entire plan, and while it's a sad reality that his time with the organization will all but certainly be through this time next year, taking away from the winning clubs he helped build for the sake of some amorphous future probably is appealing only with the benefit of hindsight.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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