When executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias took over the Orioles in November 2018 and explained his vision of a player development pipeline, every tenured player on the roster probably started preparing for their career to continue elsewhere.
Outside the organization, the expectation certainly was for a complete fire sale, but that hasn’t exactly happened yet. Looking back on the trades Elias has consummated doesn’t do much to show what he might do this week, ahead of his second in-season trade deadline Aug. 31.
Elias has just a handful of trades on his resume so far other than trades for international bonus pool money in 2019 that brought in Dwight Smith Jr., Keon Broxton and Thomas Eshelman, among others. He also made deals for players who had already been designated for assignment or were off the major league roster (such as Mike Wright).
The first one might be the most fateful — a spring training deal with the San Francisco Giants that sent Mike Yastrzemski out west for minor league right-hander Tyler Herb.
What was a classic change-of-scenery trade at the time that dealt from an Orioles surplus and addressed a deficiency of high-minors pitching depth looks a lot different now. Yastrzemski is batting .309 with a 1.074 OPS and leads the majors in wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs.
What the Orioles knew then was that their high-minors outfield included Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart, Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna, and Yastrzemski didn’t distinguish himself much in big league camp. Once he was sent to minor league camp, though, he got curious about some of the swing-based analytics and batter data that was being introduced. None of that was available in Yastrzemski’s previous time in the system.
During the season, a July trade deadline that was expected to be lively only meant Andrew Cashner was traded to the Boston Red Sox with some money for a pair of Venezuelan teenagers, and bigger names such as Trey Mancini, Jonathan Villar, Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens all stayed put.
The Cashner trade was the Orioles dealing from a struggling pitching staff, but the return of a pair of outfielders years away from even playing affiliated baseball was notable in that it showed just how far in the future the organization was planning.
There was interest in all the other Orioles players, but whether the market for them didn’t materialize or Elias’ asks were too high, those trades didn’t happen during the season. All they did on the July 31 deadline was sell right-hander Dan Straily to the Philadelphia Phillies.
More of a market developed for their players in the spring, when, around salary arbitration time, Elias dealt Villar to the Miami Marlins for left-hander Easton Lucas to avoid paying what was estimated to be a $10 million salary. Bundy was sent to the Los Angeles Angels for four minor league pitchers — Isaac Mattson, Kyle Bradish, Kyle Brnovich and Zach Peek.
Both players would certainly have a role to play on the 2020 Orioles, though Villar less so. Bundy, on the other hand, continued the transition he eased into in 2019 by using his secondary pitches more often this summer with the Angels and has a 2.58 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 38⅓ innings with a 0.89 WHIP.
The Villar trade was more about finding some kind of return, and presumably spare the Orioles the optics of having to non-tender someone who by many measures was their best offensive player just to avoid paying him more than he was worth. The Bundy trade, though, illustrates what the Orioles might run into this year with some of their players.
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They could simply find that in the offseason that more of a market develops when teams who aren’t making a playoff push have reason to enter these trade conversations, The expanded postseason, and the idea that teams have less money to work with because of the coronavirus pandemic keeping fans out of ballparks, means that many teams might just let it ride this year. Adding a few million dollars in 2020 salary for a starting pitcher such as Alex Cobb might be a non-starter.
Same goes for adding salary for Mychal Givens, José Iglesias, Miguel Castro or even Hanser Alberto. That’s not to say that the Orioles aren’t trying to move their veteran players. Other teams have been told the same thing that Elias has said publicly — that they have to listen to calls about everyone.
It just might be a situation in which they can get closer to their valuation in the winter when the game’s finances are more clear, though having someone such as Givens or Cobb for two postseason runs instead of one would be more worth it to a team trying to win.
The only other relevant trade to examine for context might be the most recent, in which Elias dealt left-hander Richard Bleier to the Marlins for a player to be named later. Those types of trades, in which the return comes later, are going to be the way to go this year, unless a team is trading one of its top prospects from the secondary site. But the timing of it might show what’s most relevant for the Orioles this week.
Bleier was having a good start for an Orioles team that was playing well. They’ve been streaky, but come out of Monday’s day off with a .500 record. Still, Elias prioritized whatever future piece the Marlins were willing to give up over what Bleier could give now.
It might be a teenager from Latin America that the Orioles like who is years away, like the two they got in return for Cashner. It could be a another low-minors arm from a recent draft who was high on their board but went elsewhere, as was the case with the Bundy trade.
Whatever it is, it contributes to a goal of winning on a timeline that takes a much longer view than solidifying the 2020 Orioles. Anything that happens this week will be with that same intention.