Maybe the Orioles will be able to muddle through the first half of the season without premier closer Zach Britton.
They have certainly done it before.
He’s projected to miss about the same amount of time in 2018 recovering from Achilles tendon surgery as he did in 2017 because of an unexplainable forearm strain, so it’s conceivable that the Orioles have enough good relief arms to maintain a solid bullpen.
Or maybe this is the catalytic event that makes the front office and ownership decide right now just where this team is going and how it will get there.
Keep in mind that the O’s already have lost serious offseason ground to the rival New York Yankees when major league home run king Giancarlo Stanton turned up in pinstripes nearly two weeks ago. The chances of bridging any significant part of that competitive gap depend on either laying out serious money for free-agent pitching or making a deal for a couple of decent starters that would cost them generational superstar Manny Machado.
Judging from all the buzz over the past day or so, the latter remains in play, at least until major league executives head home for their traditional year-end holiday break.
Though the Orioles obviously have not received an acceptable offer yet, baseball operations chief Dan Duquette said late Wednesday that he’ll be in the office Thursday in case the phone rings. If nothing materializes he said the O’s need to move on to other priorities.
There is one other option that would send a shiver through the fan base, but might make sense over the long-term.
They could punt.
The Orioles could let other clubs know that Machado will be dealt for the best possible package of young talent. They could trade top-flight setup man Brad Brach and project Mychal Givens as next year’s interim closer. They could even shop center fielder Adam Jones.
In other words, they could view the injury to Britton as a message from on high that this is not going to be their year — that the window has closed early on the group of players who can opt for free agency next November.
To take the concept a bit further, they could face the reality of Yankees and Boston Red Sox superiority and attempt to deal Machado to, say, the Yankees for a package of potential stars that brightens their long-range outlook while siphoning talent from that organization’s developmental pipeline.
Sound crazy? Not when you consider that failing to either sign or deal Machado in very short order increases the possibility that he ends up in one of those places next year while the Orioles come away almost empty-handed.
If Duquette wants to play the long game and still give the appearance of competing this season, he could try to replace Machado with one of the top remaining free-agent third basemen. Mike Moustakas or Todd Frazier wouldn’t come cheap, but each would come for a fraction of what it would cost to keep Machado beyond 2018.
That would actually be a strong option, whether the O’s find a trade partner for Machado who can shore up their starting rotation immediately — so they can hold the rest of the team together for another year — or go into a more aggressive rebuilding mode.
The only argument against it would be a real desire on the part of the Orioles to get Machado signed, but since there is no evidence of that right now, it’s probably fair to assume that the decision to shop him at the winter meetings was the white flag that should tell fans to prepare for Machado’s eventual departure.
Britton’s situation also requires a massage. The Orioles likely will be on the hook for about $12 million in arbitration, since they already have tendered him a contract. No one is going to take that contract off their hands, so they might want to see if Britton and agent Scott Boras are interested in a two-year deal that gives Britton a chance to have a fully healthy 2019 season ahead of free agency and gives the O’s a break on this year’s salary — maybe a total of $18 million or so.
Here’s what’s really important to remember: These are just two of the contract situations the Orioles will need to deal with over the next 12 months. They’ve also got Jones’ contract expiring at the end of this season and they could be facing another Machado-like situation with Jonathan Schoop entering 2019.