Not every top prospect is an Adley Rutschman or Gunnar Henderson, skyrocketing to the majors and quickly boosting his organization’s playoff hopes upon arriving there.
Some are like Yusniel Diaz, who was outrighted off the Orioles’ 40-man roster before electing free agency Thursday after each of the other 29 organizations passed when he was made available to them on waivers. Four years ago, the 26-year-old outfielder was the Orioles’ No. 1 prospect after joining Baltimore as the centerpiece of the trade that sent superstar infielder Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers. His lone major league plate appearance to this point resulted in a strikeout.
The Machado trade and the deals following it in the summer of 2018 have borne little fruit for the Orioles. With Diaz becoming a free agent, right-handed starter Dean Kremer is the only of the five players acquired from the Dodgers still with the organization. Like Kremer, right-handed reliever Dillon Tate further established himself as a major league piece in 2022, but they’re the only products of the deals that sent Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Zack Britton, Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day elsewhere for whom that’s the case in Baltimore.
The circumstances show why the Orioles shouldn’t hesitate to part with prospects this winter should they have the opportunity to add established major leaguers who boost their playoff hopes for 2023 and beyond. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, who replaced Dan Duquette months after that 2018 sell-off, has yet to acquire a tenured major league player through a trade, with his deals mostly sending them away from Baltimore to bring in young talent. The result, paired with the organization’s drafting efforts during his time leading the front office, is one of the deepest farm systems in the sport.
At the end of the regular season, Elias acknowledged the Orioles will likely be required to pull from that depth to strengthen their major league roster.
“I don’t know that we’re going to get it done without sending prospects,” Elias said last month. “I really like the players that we’ve been drafting and developing or trading for, but this is part of the business, and that’s why you amass such depth in your organization. There’s a 40-man roster. There’s a Rule 5 draft. You can’t keep everybody, and you also can’t play everybody. So, we just want to keep stacking good players and good drafts and good international development so that we’re able to use our players because we don’t have the same amount of money as the [New York] Yankees, you know? There’s going to be times when our richness in players is going to be what we have to lean into in order to win out here.”
In 2018, the Dodgers had the benefits of both types of wealth, able to part with five prospects led by Diaz for half a season of Machado and barely feel it. The Orioles’ system is perhaps at a similar point, though the recent state of the major league team has prompted the fan base to grow attached to some of the prospects the club might move this offseason. With so much of the organization’s focus and marketing devoted toward a bright future, Jordan Westburg, Connor Norby, Coby Mayo, Joey Ortiz and others have become players who fans believe can contribute to it.
But there’s not space for all of them, and those contributions might come as part of a trade package for a top-of-the-rotation starter or impact bat. There was hope Diaz could develop into the latter, but a series of lower body injuries has kept him from reaching his potential. When on the field, he hit .210 with a .608 OPS at Triple-A over the past two seasons, falling off top prospect lists and getting surpassed on the organizational outfield depth chart by Elias draftees Kyle Stowers and Colton Cowser.
Not all of the Orioles’ acquired prospects have disappointed. Kremer and Kyle Bradish, one of four right-handers they got from the Los Angeles Angels for starter Dylan Bundy in December 2019, figure to have an inside track to rotation spots come the spring. Part of the package from the Yankees for Britton, Tate will likely have a backend relief role again. Terrin Vavra showed his versatility and plate discipline in the majors two years after the Colorado Rockies traded him and two others for reliever Mychal Givens. But each of those trades also included prospects who have amounted to little thus far or are out of the organization. There is as much a possibility for regret in trading for prospects as there is in trading them away.
In the same announcement of outrighting Diaz, the Orioles reinstated left-hander John Means from the 60-day injured list, a procedural move that doesn’t change his status for the start of the 2023 season as he continues his recovery from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. It leaves the Orioles with six open roster spots to protect eligible prospects, a group including Rodriguez and Ortiz, from the Rule 5 draft. Diaz was one of six prospects protected out of the 2020 shutdown, and just less than two years later, right-hander Mike Baumann is the only one of them still on Baltimore’s 40-man roster.
Such is the nature of prospects and why, if they find the right deal this offseason, the Orioles should be unafraid of parting with some.