Baseball's hot stove season, especially when the Orioles aren't involved, is an occasion to compare what other teams are doing now to what the Orioles could have done in the past.
But this month, it's not the salary-driven trade of Robinson Cano to the New York Mets and the flawed notion that it could be compared to Chris Davis' situation that's worthy of local attention. Instead, Wednesday's four-player trade that sent Diamondbacks star Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals for three prospects harks back to last year's attempt by the Orioles to trade infielder Manny Machado with one year of club control and is the biggest case of what could have been.
This time last year, then-executive vice president Dan Duquette was taking offers at baseball's Winter Meetings for Machado's services a year out from free agency, testing the market for a trade that some felt was overdue for the first time. Machado was coming off a relatively down year that included a first-half swoon and a second-half rebound, and while the Orioles were all ears and ultimately got multiple offers for Machado, they ended up holding onto him.
Duquette decided to instead build on the team's only significant need — their rotation — and hold onto Machado, though there was a sense that some of the offers were satisfying enough if he could have gotten the deal approved at the highest levels of the organization.
When the season tanked, Duquette dealt Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers for five players — outfielder Yusniel Díaz, right-hander Dean Kremer, infielder Rylan Bannon, reliever Zach Pop, and infielder Breyvic Valera — at the All-Star break in July.
While it's hard to glean whether that's better or worse than the offers they got in December for Machado, the Orioles were then asking for two high-end, controllable starting pitchers a la the Jason Heyward trade to the Cardinals in 2014. Not only was that a fair ask, but that was their glaring need at the time — the high minors were light on starting pitching, and the rotation at the time returned only Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy.
The offers then never became public, yet when the Cardinals traded right-hander Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, and infielder Andy Young to the Diamondbacks Wednesday for Goldschmidt, it became natural to look back on what the Orioles might have gotten for Machado last year — and whether they came out ahead.
Comparing the two requires the situations to be assessed reasonably — Arizona has a better farm system than the Orioles did at the time, especially at the top. They're light on pitchers, but that's where Weaver, the former first-round pick who topped out as the No. 50 prospect in Baseball America's top-100 in 2017 comes in. He had a 4.95 ERA in 2018, but is still just 25 and reached the majors quickly.
Kelly, too, was a high pick (second round in 2012) who entered 2018 as Baseball America's No. 55 prospect but has a .154 career batting average despite his strong defense behind the plate. Young hit .289 with 21 home runs over two levels in 2018.
Add in the competitive balance round B draft pick the Diamondbacks got, and it's a fine haul for one year of Goldschmidt. But that type of package might not have been one that enticed the Orioles, not with how thin the top of their farm system has been and the variety of needs they have in the minors.
Díaz, their top prospect, adds the highest upside to a promising group of outfield prospects in their high minors; Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart are already in the majors, and Austin Hays and Ryan McKenna are biding their time at Double-A. Kremer, their No. 9 prospect according to Baseball America, was one of the best pitchers in the minors this year, leading the minors with 178 strikeouts while posting a 2.88 ERA between the Dodgers and Orioles systems.
Bannon was the California League MVP based on his 20 home runs and .966 OPS before the trade, even if he struggled at Double-A Bowie, while Pop struck out a shade below a batter per inning in his first full professional season with a 0.90 WHIP. Those four combined with Valera, a more experienced utility-infield type, all fit the Orioles' vast needs.
Did they go for quantity in the Machado trade? Certainly. But considering the going rate for someone like Goldschmidt a year out from free agency, it's not clear they forsook quality for it.