Looking back at the Orioles’ success over the past six years, the team’s high-water mark actually occurred without Manny Machado in the lineup.
For the last seven weeks of the 2014 regular season, the Orioles wrapped up their first division title since 1997 while Machado was out after deciding to undergo surgery on his right knee.
The Orioles were already well-positioned to win the American League East that season when Machado swung at a pitch on Aug. 11 against the New York Yankees and crumpled to the ground. It ended up being his final game of the season, and came at a point when the Orioles led the Toronto Blue Jays by six games and the Yankees by seven. Even without Machado — as well as injured catcher Matt Wieters, and later first baseman Chris Davis because of a suspension for taking Adderall without an approved exemption — the Orioles advanced to the AL Championship Series.
And the biggest reason for their success, without three of their biggest bats, was the starting pitching jelled at the right time to propel the team to win the division and sweep the Detroit Tigers in the AL Division Series.
So, taking a look at the Orioles’ most successful season during their renaissance since 2012 — along with assessing the current state of the club — might be the biggest reason to deal Machado this offseason and still feel like the club’s short- and long-term future can be bright.
To consummate a move for Machado, who can become a free agent after the 2018 season, the Orioles will require at least two high-end, major league-ready starting pitchers who will be under team control for the next four or five years, according to sources.
“Now, the Yankees went out and picked up [Giancarlo] Stanton, right, the NL MVP,” Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun at this past week’s winter meetings. “So it made the challenge even greater, right? The Red Sox are still strong. The Astros are good. The Angels went out and got [Shohei] Ohtani. Cleveland’s good, right? So [the] teams we’re competing with are good and they’re improving, so we’re going to need add to our ballclub to get into that contending mode.”
So much about the Orioles’ starting pitching is unclear, as is their plan to retool their rotation. They only return two starters — Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman — and Duquette indicated at the winter meetings that rebuilding the rotation will have to be done through different avenues. The Orioles’ rotation problem won’t be solved exclusively through free agency, but also through trades.
No matter what the Orioles have in terms of trade chips — from premier closer Zach Britton to underpriced setup man Brad Brach to an improved crop of prospects — Machado is perhaps the only piece that can get the club the high-end starting pitching it needs to remain competitive in a bulked-up AL East.
There’s nothing to suggest the Orioles have been overwhelmed by any of the offers. They have reportedly received 10 offers, according to USA Today, though one source said there’s really only three teams that can put a package together that would make a Machado trade worthwhile. Duquette said the club has time to consider offers before the team has to decide whether to trade Machado.
Even before considering trading Machado, the Orioles realized fixing their starting pitching situation would be a challenge. Then in the week leading up to the winter meetings, a run on the Orioles’ starting pitching targets left them out in the cold. It wasn’t out of inactivity, because the Orioles made multiyear offers to both right-handers Mike Fiers and Miles Mikolas, according to sources, and were rebuffed.
The Orioles are already counting on Bundy and Gausman to continue to develop. To a lesser extent, they hope Hunter Harvey becomes an option at some point in 2018. They also hope one or two pitchers emerge out of a group of untested arms that includes Miguel Castro, Gabriel Ynoa and Rule 5 draft pick Nestor Cortes.
But even if all that happens, which is no guarantee, the Orioles still need more pitchers to anchor a rotation. And Machado is likely the only trade piece that can net that.
In each of the three times the Orioles went to the playoffs over the past six seasons, it was because of their pitching. Take the 2014 season as an example. After Machado went out with the knee injury, the Orioles rotation posted a 2.85 ERA for the remainder of the year, which ranked third in baseball and second in the AL. The rotation also held opponents to a weighted on-base average of .285, tied for fourth in baseball.
Over that stretch, three Orioles starters posted sub-3.00 ERAs: Miguel González (1.79), Chris Tillman (2.34) and Wei-Yin Chen (2.72). None of those three are still Orioles, and the team hasn’t seen that sort of collective dominance from their rotation since.
Only in a situation like that one can the Orioles field a club — without an impact player like Machado — that they still feel can contend. After Machado was hurt that season, the club went 28-16, winning 96 games overall and doubling their lead in the division to win it by 12 games. With the addition of lockdown lefty reliever Andrew Miller, the Orioles went on to beat the Tigers in the ALDS.
This year presents different obstacles because the other teams in the division are stronger, but it goes to show what the Orioles must do to make a Machado deal worthwhile and feel like they’re not giving up on 2018.
More importantly, it sheds light on the fact that he’s perhaps the only asset the Orioles — a team that won’t compete for big-ticket free agents and is still light on major league-ready arms in the minors — can use to restock their rotation to the degree they need.