Although they were unlikely to be good to begin with, the 2020 Orioles got worse Monday night. That, as executive vice president/general Mike Elias sees it, is the cost of potentially improving the teams Baltimore will field in the middle of the next decade.
As the deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players approached, the Orioles traded Jonathan Villar, their most productive position player in 2019 but a free agent after 2020, to the Miami Marlins for left-handed pitching prospect Easton Lucas. Elias and his staff targeted Lucas in this year’s draft and were able to retroactively select him Monday, using Villar rather than a draft pick, with the intent of continuing to stockpile young talent.
“We felt that as much as we all enjoyed Jonathan and how well he played this year, with where he was in his career, coming up against free agency, with the salary range that he was getting into, we felt like there are players that have a little bit more long-term possibility with our organization and where it’s going and our timeline that we are anticipating,” Elias said on a conference call Monday.
In his yearlong tenure at the helm of Baltimore’s baseball operations department, Elias has twice traded a player approaching free agency, and both cases potentially exemplify the distance down that timeline that contention is viewed as a possibility. The Orioles’ only trade in advance of the July deadline was sending right-hander Andrew Cashner for a pair of 17-year-old Venezuelan prospects named Elio Prado and Noelberth Romero, a deal made to supplant an international pipeline that had been lacking in Baltimore before this year.
Prado and Romero spent their fall in the Dominican Summer League, while Lucas made all but one of his appearances in his first professional campaign for Miami’s short-season affiliate. They are not players who will benefit the major league club in 2020.
But even if those pieces aren’t part of the next Orioles team in a playoff hunt, the plan in place is to work toward there being several. Elias arrived in Baltimore intent on building a long-lasting contender. That’s part of why the Orioles’ six other arbitration-eligible players were either tendered a contract or, in Richard Bleier’s case, signed one. Trey Mancini, Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Hanser Alberto and Bleier all have multiple years of team control remaining, whereas Villar was likely to be in another team’s uniform by 2021, regardless of what happened Monday night.
“We feel like we have put ourselves in good position to bring a lot of our growing young core players back next year, but also having added to our future and our minor league stockpile, which is a big part of our strategic plan at this point in time,” Elias said. “I think bringing in a young pitcher like Lucas into the fold is exactly what we’re trying to do and makes sense for our future objectives.”
Those objectives include adding to a system that has made its way into baseball’s top 10, largely thanks to the collection of talent Elias’ 2019 draft class — headed by No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman — brought to it. Lucas was not a heavily praised prospect, but he was one Elias desired as he strives to add depth at all of the organization’s levels, in hopes of a better future at the top one.
Monday night, the price of another dose of that hope was Villar.
“We’re going to miss him,” Elias said, “but this was the right move on a number of levels.”