It was just a happy coincidence that Manny Machado arrived on our doorstep this week to remind us where this sapling of an Orioles team sprouted and why.
This is no nostalgia piece. Things were certainly not better a year ago at this time, when it was dawning on Orioles fans that the talk of a major teardown and the imminent departure of one of the biggest stars in the history of the franchise was no longer just informed speculation.
The O’s were in full tailspin by then and Machado was all but out the door. The only question was whether the Orioles would be able to extract sufficient value for him and several of the club’s other top players to seed the barren farm system.
It is still too soon to tell, of course. The Orioles traded Machado to the Dodgers on July 18 for five players, most notably Cuban outfielder Yusniel Diaz. They picked up an additional 10 mostly minor league players for Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman, Jonathan Schoop and Darren O’Day.
It looked like a big haul at the time, but opinions vary on whether former baseball operations chief Dan Duquette will someday be able to look back on last year’s midseason trading period and take some credit for the eventual outcome of the Mike Elias-led rebuilding effort.
What we do know is that the Orioles really had no choice but to deal Machado and Britton — both pending free agents — which obviously hindered their ability to create an optimal trading scenario for either one.
For all of you who have succeeded in wiping last season entirely from your memory banks, it is important to keep in mind that the 2018 Orioles team — which had the 11th-highest payroll in the sport — had a 23-55 record after 78 games, which was exactly one game better than this year’s team.
The average player salary last year was more than $5 million. This year’s club has a bottom-four payroll that is just about half of last season’s, but it’s OK to miss Manny. He’s a generational superstar and even during the worst of times, when the Orioles were right in the middle of a 4-25 slump at this point last year, he was always a threat to do something that would be a hot topic of conversation around the office the next day.
It wasn’t always good. Machado also can be a volatile player, as evidenced by the recent bat-tossing/umpire brushing incident that has him currently appealing a one-game suspension. There were several incidents like that during his years in Baltimore, but the good far outweighed the occasional burst of immaturity from one of the greatest early-20s players in the history of the game.
The flurry of midseason deals that would come after Machado was traded should have prepared fans for what has transpired during this difficult first season of the Elias/Sig Mejdal/Brandon Hyde era. The rebuilding Orioles were never going to try to field even a .500 team or rush any of their most prized prospects to the majors for cosmetic reasons.
The front office signaled that when several of the upper-level position prospects were sent down before Opening Day regardless of their spring performances. Even now, with the bullpen in tatters and the Norfolk Shuttle creating baseball’s biggest carbon footprint, Hyde steadfastly dismissed the notion that the team might dig into the lower levels of the farm system to audition some potential rotation and middle relief arms.
If you don’t think Hyde cares about winning, you haven’t been reading his body language during the nightly MASN postgame interviews. The just-ended 10-game losing streak was one of the toughest periods in his baseball career, and we’re talking about a guy who didn’t make it out of the minor leagues as a player.
He has remained largely positive through the first half of the season, but nobody who has reached the highest level of a professional sport can abide losing for long, and you could read the pain of last week’s “embarrassing” 16-2 loss in Oakland all over Hyde’s face.
Just keep in mind what you’re looking at — a few solid veterans and a bunch of marginal young guys who are fighting to prove they should be included in the later stages of the rebuild. It might look like these are the worst of times, but this doesn’t really compare with where the Orioles were at this time last year.
Give Manny his due and enjoy him from afar.
Give the rebuilding program time and try to accept it for what it is.