Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias’ comments last week on the team’s Hot Stove Radio show about the difficult and potentially unpopular roster decisions the team is going to face this offseason were particularly enlightening considering this week’s general manager meetings, which will kick off the offseason around the game.
While not necessarily different than anything he’s said before, Elias’ perspective on how much budget was going to be a consideration for the rebuilding Orioles this offseason and the fact that their best major league pieces are all due arbitration raises make it seem like not all of those players are going to be around come Opening Day.
Jonathan Villar, Mychal Givens and even Trey Mancini represent the bulk of the Orioles’ best talents on the major league roster, but reading between the lines, it’s clear that Elias believes that such players might be more valuable to teams that want to win sooner than they do.
That makes this week in Arizona noteworthy for one particular reason: The only time Elias and the Orioles have pulled the trigger on trading a major piece, it was the Andrew Cashner trade with the Boston Red Sox. And by making that trade weeks before the deadline, he set a precedent that if someone meets the Orioles’ price and they can get a deal done without other teams’ moving the goalposts on the market, they will.
Cashner was in the midst of his best stretch of the season coming out of the All-Star break, and once the Red Sox put a couple of high-ceiling Venezuelan teenagers on the table as trade chips, the Orioles pounced. The situation the Orioles will find themselves in this week could ultimately mirror that.
Villar is due to make over $10 million in his final year of club control next year, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ trusted projections, and the Orioles don’t seem interested in being the team to pay that.
Trading away legitimate major league talent won’t do anything to win over the skeptical portion of the fan base that just wants to be able to turn on the television every night and watch a competitive baseball game. That’s not going to stop the Orioles from doing what they feel is right long-term.
So as all the league’s top executives convene this week to start mapping out their respective offseasons, it stands to reason that an eager buyer and the Orioles could make a good match. No middle infielder on the free-agent market came close to Villar’s 4.0 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs, in 2019.
Givens had a down year with 0.5 WAR and a career-high 4.57 ERA, but it’s a lean market for relievers in free agency as well. His two years of club control remaining and the glaring reality that he can be a dominant setup man who owns right-handed hitters mean he’ll likely thrive in the right role and setting after being miscast as a closer the past two years.
Making a trade won’t be easy, though. The free-agent alternatives for other teams will only cost money instead of the minor league talents that so many teams covet. That’s a deterrent that will make Elias’ job hard this week, and this offseason. Every team has the types of international and low-minor talents who the Orioles targeted in the Cashner trade, though, and those are often a lot easier to part with than more established players who put up good numbers, like the ones the Orioles acquired in the Manny Machado and Kevin Gausman deals in July 2018.
Those low-minor talents are the type of players the Orioles are seeking right now, so it stands to reason that they won’t wait too long if there’s a team that’s ready to meet that price for one of their stars.
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Making a move early will have several benefits, some that matter to the team and others that won’t. From a competitive standpoint, this is shaping up to be a very weird offseason in which a ton of arbitration-eligible superstar talents — from Mookie Betts of the Red Sox to Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs to Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians — might end up on the trade block as well.
The Orioles could both jump and undercut those markets by moving someone like Villar early for the right price.
And considering how unmoved the new front office was last year as longtime club icon Adam Jones sat on the free-agent market amid calls to re-sign him, it won’t matter that there’s going to be backlash to all this. Sticking to a long-term plan means unpopular moves, and as it is, basically the only offseason storyline surrounding the Orioles so far has been what they’ll do with Villar.
While a worthy question, it’s also far afield from anything the front office will want people to be focusing on as they embark on Year 2 of their process. Three more weeks of hand-wringing about the fate of some of the only recognizable players on the team will only bring more attention to the decisions they make.