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Taking a hard — and realistic — look at the Orioles' trade possibilities with Manny Machado

The Orioles have reached Memorial Day, and with it, the end of the self-imposed two-month stretch to gauge whether this team is built to win in 2018.

Now, that doesn’t mean the Orioles will suddenly unload pending free agents starting today. It doesn’t mean Manny Machado will be in a new uniform by the end of the week, by the end of July or for that matter by the end of this season. It only means that this is the time executive vice president Dan Duquette set to assess this club and choose the direction it should go.

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The club could hold Machado until the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, when contenders are more clearly established, but that also comes with the risk that they might not receive the haul they’ve sought for what would then be a two-month rental. And while it might sound ludicrous, there is the possibility the Orioles don’t move Machado at all, in which case they’d receive only a compensatory draft pick for his signing elsewhere in free agency. They would like to receive more than that for a player like Machado, but if the right deal doesn’t come, they could still just keep him for the rest of the season.

At this time of the season, it’s harder to differentiate the contending teams from the pretenders, which could create more suitors, especially among those underachieving teams out there such as the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers. And there are surprise teams such as the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves who can use an established star to sustain their early-season success.

But waiting until the nonwaiver deadline would more firmly establish the teams with a chance to reach the postseason, and possibly create a bidding war that could help the Orioles get the return they want, much as the Boston Red Sox did in 2014 when the Orioles had to outbid the Detroit Tigers for reliever Andrew Miller.

Machado has done his part to improve his stock. Playing for an Orioles team that entered Sunday ranked 24th in the major leagues in runs scored, he led baseball in RBIs with 44. His 15 homers were tied for fifth. His .324 batting average was sixth in the American League and his 1.004 OPS ranked fifth.

This much hasn’t changed. The Orioles understand what it would mean to trade Machado, the franchise’s best homegrown talent since Cal Ripken Jr. The team’s decision-makers realize they must be confident in the return they will receive for him, and the Orioles are known to place lofty values on their own assets, which makes big deals difficult to consummate.

But keep in mind that trades involving franchise players this past offseason — the Tampa Bay Rays parted with third baseman Evan Longoria and the Pittsburgh Pirates moved outfielder Andrew McCutchen — didn’t net huge hauls. That’s one of the reasons the Orioles retreated this past offseason and decided to keep Machado for at least part of 2018.

Don’t expect any Machado shopping to be as public as it was during the offseason, when the Orioles made it clear to everyone they were fielding offers for him but still didn’t get what they wanted. While the national media have shopped Machado to various clubs in recent weeks, most of those reports have been based on how much he could help other teams rather than the kind of deal that would work for the Orioles.

While it would have seemed to create a bigger market for him, Machado’s transition to shortstop hasn’t helped the Orioles. Moving him to a more important position on the field is one thing, but Machado made it clear at every stop along his media tour this season that he has no intention of returning to third base.

Now, that’s not to say a team needing a third baseman can’t and wouldn’t trade for Machado, but he’s made it clear to everyone that he’s most happy playing shortstop.

And that has appeared to take some potential suitors such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox — not to say the Orioles would trade him to a division rival — further out of the mix because they have established shortstops and have chosen to establish their own young players at third.

With all that in mind, here are five clubs who appear to be the top suitors for Machado on Memorial Day.

Braves

For the Orioles, the Braves might be the best fit, mainly because Atlanta owns the best and deepest farm system in the game — eight top-100 prospects according to Baseball America — including several who have reached the major leagues.

The Orioles aren’t going to pry away top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. or anyone like that, but the Braves make sense as a trade partner because they are so rich in pitching prospects.

The Orioles’ focus in a Machado trade must still be centered on acquiring long-term controllable pitchers. The Braves have an excess of intriguing young arms. Right-hander Mike Soroka, left-hander Luiz Gohara and left-hander Max Fried are all top-80 prospects who have already reached the majors, and the Braves have five pitching prospects in the top 61 overall, according to Baseball America.

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Machado could be a key piece for a Braves team that entered Monday as the surprise leader in the National League East because he would fit in well with Atlanta’s young core as a veteran presence but still bring the youth of a 25-year-old. The only wrench is that the Braves have a bigger need at third than shortstop after investing in Dansby Swanson.

Cubs

This list has to include the Cubs, a team that needs a spark after a slow start. The South Side media circus that took place last week when Machado was in town to play the Chicago White Sox was followed by Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein rebutting reports of any recent discussions between the Orioles and his club. We’d expect that.

There was buzz in the offseason about a possible Machado deal that centered Cubs shortstop Addison Russell and left-hander Mike Montgomery. The Orioles have been looking for major league pieces, which will be hard to come by from a contender, but getting the 24-year-old Russell, a career .242 hitter, and Montgomery, who turns 29 in July, isn’t one that would invoke tremendous excitement from the fan base.

The Cubs farm system, which was one of the best before Chicago dealt multiple top prospects over the past few years (Gleyber Torres to the Yankees, Eloy Jiménez to the White Sox) is ranked third to last in the majors by Baseball America, and includes no top-100 prospects.

Phillies

The Phillies are another young surprise team in need of a superstar like Machado, and they would be a team focused on using a rental to sell him on the long-term future.

Even though Machado has every intention of testing free agency, the Orioles could use Philadelphia’s long-term longing for him as negotiation leverage. Only one team will have the opportunity to woo Machado before free agency.

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And Machado would seem to be a good fit for the Phillies as they have a clubhouse similar to the one he was inserted into in 2012 with the Orioles — they’re young, hungry and have nothing to lose. A strong Hispanic clubhouse presence could help make Machado feel at home as well.

The Philadelphia brass also knows Machado well. Phillies farm director Joe Jordan headed the Orioles’ amateur scouting department when the Orioles drafted Machado in 2010, and that’s just the beginning of the well-known Orioles-Phillies front-office connections.

A deal would have to work, and it would be difficult to pry hard-throwing pitching prospect Sixto Sánchez from the Phillies, but they have some depth, too, owning the sixth-best farm system in the majors, and have high-upside players such as J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery who could fill the middle infield for years to come.

Indians

The Indians are the only team in the American League Central with a winning record, but at just one game over .500 entering Sunday, they’ve underachieved.

Cleveland has been connected to Machado for a while, but has never been among the perceived front-running teams, and that’s because the Indians have a pedestrian farm system with few major league-ready pieces and even fewer potential high-impact prospects. They are built to win now — and they will always have a chance with their exemplary pitching — and the fact that they haven’t met early expectations could lead fans to believe they need a piece like Machado to get over the hump and re-establish themselves as a World Series contender.

But the Indians don’t have much that fits the Orioles’ needs. Their top prospect, Francisco Mejía, is major league-ready, but he’s a catcher, and the Orioles already have Chance Sisco. Cleveland has a big arm in 20-year-old right-hander Triston McKenzie, but he’s probably still a year or two away. Also, the Indians have a franchise shortstop of their own in Francisco Lindor, so acquiring Machado would likely include a move back to third and relocating José Ramírez.

Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals were among the top suitors for Machado during the offseason, and their need for him this season increased earlier this month when starting shortstop Paul DeJong was lost to injury.

The Cardinals are in a good spot right now, but play in an uber-competitive National League Central that entered Sunday with just 1½ games separating the first- and fourth-place teams. Adding an all-around talent such as Machado — as well as preventing the division-rival Cubs from acquiring him — would help their cause in two ways.

The Orioles love top-50 pitching prospect Jack Flaherty, a right-hander, and the Cardinals have another top pitching prospect in Alex Reyes, also a righty. But St. Louis’ stability is based in keeping its homegrown arms.

The Cardinals have the 13th-ranked farm system in baseball, according to Baseball America, so there is some depth, but most of it is in the outfield — the one area where the Orioles have their own high-level prospect depth.

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