Taken on its own merits, the Orioles' Friday night deal with the Philadelphia Phillies that sent outfielder Hyun Soo Kim away and brought back right-hander Jeremy Hellickson simply doesn't feel like a piece of business to be considered outside of a larger picture — albeit one that's not clear yet.
At 48-54, the Orioles are 6½ games out of a playoff spot with seven teams above them in the wild-card standings. Most indications have been they're trying to maximize the value of their top relievers in hopes of netting a haul like the New York Yankees got last season for Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, something that can help remake the team for 2018 on the fly.
But adding Hellickson, a pending free agent, to a rotation with an ERA that has a 5.99 ERA in 102 games, seems to be a move directed solely at this year. With a 4.73 ERA this season, Hellickson ranks only behind Dylan Bundy's 4.53 among Orioles starters, and his eight quality starts trail only Bundy as well.
However, his fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which calculates ERA based on walks, strikeouts, and home runs, all of which a pitcher can control, is 5.50. He has allowed a career-high 1.8 home runs per nine innings and struck out a career low 5.2 per nine. All that's coming with the lowest velocity of his career at age 30. [All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.]
Yet the fact that he is averaging 5 2/3 innings per start is an asset to a rotation that's averaging just over five innings per start means a bit more reliability for a group that's been short on it lately.
Even so, it seems a marginal upgrade that doesn't fit with the idea of improving the team long term while keeping it in contention today. The money exchanged balanced out the remaining salary owed between him and Hyun Soo Kim and made it a wash. The roster flexibility gained, considering Kim simply couldn't get on the field, could be a bonus. But otherwise, there's a feeling that there's something else to be done here.
Absent it, the move seems similar to the Gerardo Parra trade in 2015 or the Scott Feldman deal in 2013, where a clear area of need was addressed with something short of a major upgrade. It signals that Duquette hasn't punted on 2017, even with the deficit building. But in truth, all the move does is beg a question that by Monday afternoon there should be a clearer answer to: what, exactly, are the Orioles getting after?
Trading a reliever like Zach Britton or Brad Brach wouldn't serve the same purpose as adding a starter for the stretch run would. Even if Hellickson takes another starting pitcher's spot and they use the opportunity to jettison a struggling member of their rotation and use Kim's roster spot on a young player, no candidates exactly jump out inside the system.
The best guess at this point is that the Orioles are going to replay the Bud Norris decision of 2015, when the struggling right-hander in his walk year was designated for assignment with a 7.06 ERA come the end of July.
Swapping out a pitcher who has performed badly with one whose peripherals warn could do the same would leave the Orioles in the same intriguing place they were before the deal: with a bevy of assets, the skeleton of a playoff aspirant intact for 2018, and only a few days left to figure out what to do with it all.