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Orioles reset: Even in a competitive season, Sunday’s trades show focus remains beyond 2020

Orioles General Manager Mike Elias discusses the trade of pitcher Mychal Givens to the Colorado Rockies and pitcher Tommy Milone to the Atlanta Braves.

Between the two trades that Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias pulled off Sunday, manager Brandon Hyde suggested that even as moves made before Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline pull talent from their major league roster, the Orioles will still make every effort to compete.

“I think we’re still trying to win every game we can,” Hyde said.

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Sunday’s deals that sent left-handed starting pitcher Tommy Milone to the Atlanta Braves and right-handed reliever Mychal Givens to the Colorado Rockies came before the Orioles suffered their 11th defeat in 13 games, a stretch that has soured a 12-8 start that made Baltimore an unexpected contender.

They ended Sunday trailing the Toronto Blue Jays by 4½ games for the eighth and final American League postseason spot. Their playoff odds, according to FanGraphs, began the day at 3.5%.

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“In terms of the trades today, this was not something done as any type of comment about the way our major league team is playing,” Elias said. “We’ve got a young team, and they’re playing their hearts out every night, and we want them to continue to do so. But as we’ve said all along, we have some broad strategic objectives that go beyond 2020.”

In moving Milone and Givens for two prospects and three players to be named, the Orioles lost their only starter with multiple outings of at least six innings and their longest tenured reliever who was performing well in a setup role. But Milone was a pending free agent, and Givens is due to be one after next season.

They replaced both on the active roster with prospects: Keegan Akin will make his first major league start Monday in place of Milone, and Hunter Harvey didn’t take long to move into Givens’ open setup role now that’s he’s off the injured list.

The Orioles seemed to do well in both deals, getting two to-be-named prospects in return for Milone after they had signed him to a minor league deal a handful of days into spring training. For Givens, the return featured two of the Rockies’ top 20 prospects in infielders Tyler Nevin and Terrin Vavra, along with a player to be named.

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But the moves left the Orioles’ active roster with only three players who began the year with more than four years of major league service time: right-handed starting pitcher Alex Cobb, shortstop José Iglesias and catcher Bryan Holaday. Cobb and Iglesias are candidates to be dealt, too.

“I think that we’re aware of the situation, and I think we’re aware of, this is part of the game and this is part of what happens every single year,” Hyde said. “Sometimes with younger clubs, you get even younger at the deadline, which means that other teams want some of your good players that you had.

“We were young already. We’re going to stay young and we’re going to stay inexperienced for this last month, and we’re just going to do the best we can to continue to develop them and give them major league experience.”

Elias said he believed the players left in the Orioles’ clubhouse understood the situation, crediting Hyde and his staff for their messaging.

“It’s just all part of the transition that this roster’s undergoing and part of our business,” Elias said.

What’s next?

First comes the aforementioned trade deadline, with Cobb, Iglesias and Miguel Castro the likeliest pieces for Elias to dangle. The deadline will pass during the Orioles’ series finale against the Blue Jays.

Then, they’ll return home for a series against each of the New York teams. After two games against the New York Mets and a day off, the Orioles will play four games against the New York Yankees, including a doubleheader Friday to make up for a game lost amid the scheduling shuffle that followed the Miami Marlins’ coronavirus breakout.

What was good?

César Valdez, a 35-year-old right-hander who spent most of the past decade out of affiliated baseball, pitched three scoreless in relief Saturday in his first major league appearance since 2017.

“It was one of the best days of my life, my career,” Valdez said through team interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “It’s been a long road after so many years of hard work, dedication, a lot of sweat and tears. It finally paid off. I never lost faith that I could make it again, and here I am today.”

Despite not throwing above 88 mph, Valdez recorded five strikeouts, heavily relying on a changeup he said he learned while in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization early in his career. Valdez’s major league debut came with the Diamondbacks in 2010 as a 25-year-old, and he then spent most of the next decade pitching in Latin leagues and China.

He resurfaced with the Oakland Athletics and Blue Jays in 2017, but ended up back in the Mexican League the past two years. In 30 outings last year between the Mexican League and Domincan Winter League, Valdez went 19-3 with a 2.01 ERA. The Orioles, he said, “were among the very few teams that were interested in my services,” and he signed a minor league deal with them this offseason.

Hyde said the Orioles were intrigued by what they had in Valdez throughout both spring training and summer camp. They finally got to see it in a major league setting Friday.

Valdez said his motivation to make it back to the majors came from his father, who died in 2015.

“He was one of the people that always told me to keep trying, to never give up, you never know what could happen, keep on going,” Valdez said. “I really wanted to do it for him and for myself, to keep on trying, keep pushing.”

What wasn’t?

Cole Sulser was unexpectedly the Orioles’ closer for the season’s first half. He likely won’t carry that role through the year’s end.

After the Blue Jays walked off against Sulser for the second time in three days, Hyde said “anything’s open right now” when it comes to who pitches the ninth inning. Although Sulser, a right-hander, has been extremely effectively against left-handed batters this year — they’re 1-for-30 against him — he’s also struggled with command.

Since a six-out save in his Orioles debut, Sulser has issued 13 walks in 13⅓ innings. Three of them came Sunday, when he walked the bases loaded then surrendered a walk-off single.

Hyde’s greatest qualm with replacing Sulser is the lack of alternatives. Givens was traded. Harvey appears to be the Orioles’ closer of the future, but their cautious approach with him will prevent him from being available on back-to-back days. Tanner Scott was dominant early but has allowed an inherited runner to score in four straight games. Improved command hasn’t necessarily smoothed the volatility of Miguel Castro. Paul Fry has allowed only one earned run in 11 August outings, but Hyde has primarily deployed him in the middle innings.

Regardless of the options, a change in roles is coming to the Orioles’ bullpen.

On the farm

The additions of Nevin, Vavra and whoever their five pending players to be named turn out to be are part of Elias’ continued stockpiling on talent in the farm system rather than the major league roster. He said Sunday that process isn’t necessarily close to finished.

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In particular, he noted the growth needed in the international market, but he also noted that some prospects, such as Akin, Harvey and a thriving Ryan Mountcastle, have reached the majors as the club begins to put the pieces of its future in place.

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“I don’t think you ever feel your farm system is good enough,” Elias said. “When we start to see that we have enough building blocks on that major league roster or at least close to it that we will start thinking of shifting our priorities to augmenting that. But I don’t think we’re at that point yet. We’re still in a talent collection mode.”

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