Making his annual appearance on the team’s hot-stove radio show in November, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette took a tack quite different from the one he does now.
Rebuilds, he said three times in the span of a minute-long answer that night, are “not very much fun.” The Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, the two most recent World Series champions, had set out to lose for years on end and stockpile top draft picks before they finally won, but the downside of that was painful, and everyone prefers winning.
When the Orioles won less often than nearly every team in modern baseball history over the first half of this season, they forced a teardown that began with Manny Machado and continued over the past week with Zach Britton and Brad Brach, all current or former All-Stars. Their rebuild is now the buzz in Baltimore.
Duquette told fans at Saturday’s State of the Orioles event that they’re going “full force into a rebuild,” echoing the plans he outlined in a conference call after trading Machado for five Los Angeles Dodgers prospects two weeks ago.
Yet with Duquette and manager Buck Showalter under contract only through this season, the sudden shift in philosophy comes under unique circumstances for these Orioles.
That pair’s greatest strength in this era of Orioles baseball has been squeezing out every ounce of value on the major league roster. But on a team that’s not trying to win, Duquette and Showalter are not obvious fits. Absent any public guarantees about their futures, all that can really be done is evaluate the franchise in the here and now.
With Machado, Britton and Brach all now traded, and with the growing expectation that Adam Jones will exercise his right to stay in Baltimore for the final few months of his contract, most of the work entering Tuesday’s nonwaiver trade deadline appears finished. All that might be left is shopping Danny Valencia, should interest arise.
The Orioles still have assets like Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, whose contracts have one, two and three years of club control remaining, respectively. But they don’t seem inclined to move any of those players at this point, which gives as true a snapshot of any about the state of this rebuild.
The organization’s murky front-office future — not only is Duquette’s contract expiring, but the influence of executive vice president John Angelos, ownership representative Louis Angelos and vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson is also growing — already revealed itself in this month’s moves.
The Orioles’ nightmare of a season meant that they had to trade those top pending free agents. There was no other option, and the haul was satisfactory given the circumstances. The return from the Dodgers and New York Yankees also fit the Orioles’ preferences under Duquette: minor leaguers of varying pedigrees, especially pitchers, who can fill up the high minors and make an impact relatively quickly.
But having a younger, controllable player like Schoop to shop in the offseason or thereafter could be one of the greatest draws to a possible replacement for Duquette. It would be an opportunity to put a unique stamp on the holistic rebuild that Duquette has announced, one that will include more resources for professional and international scouting, analytics, technology and player development.
Duquette has said that resources diverted toward major league payroll — the Orioles averaged Opening Day payrolls of $153.5 million over the past three seasons — would go back toward those longer-term investments.
International signings could be addressed immediately. The Orioles added $250,000 in international-signing-bonus slot money from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Brach on Sunday, and they haven’t made any signings that would have chipped away at their $5.504 million bonus pool for the period that began July 2. That could change this week as the club finalizes a batch of signings, with bonuses as high as six figures expected.
Such signings, typically unnoticed in the midst of a playoff chase, will get plenty of attention now, especially if the Orioles make good on their interest in Victor Victor Mesa. The Cuban outfielder will immediately become the top international prospect on the market once he’s declared a free agent.
As the Orioles strip down the major league team and lower payroll over the next few seasons, such investments will be more important than ever. But for now, they’re simply the only way they can show this is all for real. That’s what stands out about the public execution of the Orioles’ attempt to turn around a franchise whose near-sighted approach got them here.
They’ve done what’s been available to them this month: trade pending free agents, spend money on the top Latin American talent that had yet to sign. Before long, they’ll start handing major league debuts to prospects new and old.
But what comes next will say a lot more about the Orioles’ direction than the rhetoric that’s accompanied this month’s maneuvering.