When the Orioles dealt Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy in quick succession in December, it was between a season in which they weren’t competitive and one in which the plan wasn’t to change that as they continue their rebuild.
It was transparent in just how plainly it laid out that the Orioles weren’t going to be seeking any meaningful improvement at the major league level.
Eight months, a pandemic and an improbable 4-3 start to this planned 60-game season later, such moves seem to be continuing apace — even as the Orioles seem to be one of the teams handling the pandemic version of baseball best.
The Orioles dealt veteran reliever Richard Bleier — who after the trade manager Brandon Hyde said was the only arm in the bullpen who could reliably throw strikes — to the Miami Marlins for a player to be named.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, when asked whether the trade meant the Orioles were giving up on the idea of being competitive this summer, said “not at all.”
“We’re off to a good start,” Elias said.
“The guys are playing well. It’s good energy,” he said. “We’ve got good young players on the team that are perhaps having breakout years. We’ll see. We want to keep this rolling.”
Still, the Orioles have had one of the worst bullpens in baseball since the late-inning trio of Zach Britton, Darren O’Day and Brad Brach was dealt in their July 2018 teardown. Bleier was one of the lone consistent pieces of it, and they’re moving on from him. Elias noted how the “modern business of the game now” is “very transactional,” and cited the visiting Tampa Bay Rays as a team that is constantly making moves to maximize its present and future concurrently.
“You’ve got to pick your times and cycle guys in and cycle guys out and keep the talent flow going,” Elias said. “We’re still at a point in our cycle where we’re going to prioritize stuffing the talent pipeline as much as possible in the minor leagues and getting that base, and then the goal is to persist in that way once we have that talent base filled in. But by no means does this mean that we don’t hope this team continues to win. It’s an anything-goes kind of year, and we’re going to go out and win every game every night.”
It’s hard to think of that other than a signal that no one on the Orioles is safe, even if the unlikely winning continues. And continue it might. They’ve already won two of three series and will be no worse than .500 when the Marlins come into town.
Provided that neither COVID-19 nor the incoming hurricane prevents those four games in three days from being played, there’s another prime opportunity for the Orioles to bank some wins against a Marlins team that’s equal parts minor league reinforcements, recent acquisitions and rusty major leaguers.
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By the time the Marlins leave town, the Orioles will be the equivalent of one month into their season. It would be foolish to change plans based on one month of baseball, let alone 10 or 11 games, even in a shortened season. At 4-3 after Saturday’s win, the Orioles’ playoff odds had climbed on FanGraphs from 1.5% to 3% since the start of the season.
That’s hardly enough of a chance for a team that relies on data forecasts and projections for so much to abandon its plan of securing another high draft pick in a top-heavy 2021 MLB draft to chase a playoff spot.
So if the likes of Mychal Givens, Alex Cobb, or even Wade LeBlanc or Tommy Milone pitch well and a willing suitor comes calling with the right prospect package, Elias will listen. Same goes for the hitters making real money, even if José Iglesias and Hanser Alberto seem to be indispensable from a spirit and energy standpoint.
The rules for this COVID-shortened season make trades complicated, with only those in a team’s player pool eligible to be dealt. The Orioles found a way around that by using the player-to-be-named tactic in their two trades this week. They just need a willing partner for the rest of their veterans.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen with the trade market,” Elias said. “This came together. The [Hector] Velázquez trade with Houston kind of came out of nowhere. I just don’t know what to expect this year. I don’t think anyone does. We’re just going to keep talking to everybody and remain communicative and see what’s out there. But if ever there was a trade market that was impossible to predict, I think we’ve found it.”
Finding that partner, however, won’t necessarily depend on if their winning ways continue. And so far, the Orioles seem to have at least the mentality to keep it going, if not the consistency.
Veteran left-hander Wade LeBlanc said: “You never know. I know chemistry is one of those things that numbers guys can’t put numbers on. They can’t evaluate it with equations or formulas and all that stuff. it’s just one of those things that plays a big part in a team having success. It was one of those things you could get a sense was very strong coming into spring training, and to come in after the quarantine situation and come back and feel like everything picked up where it left off, it’s a special feeling in this clubhouse and it’s fun to be a part of.”