It had been obvious for some time that the Orioles were going to bail on this season and trade away the veteran nucleus of the team, but it wasn’t until Tuesday that the full magnitude of the long-anticipated rebuild hit home.
No one was surprised when pending free agents Manny Machado and Zach Britton got traded.
But Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman are in their mid-20s, and both were under club control for at least next season before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves, respectively. Moving them constituted a real commitment to rebuild.
That should tell you when executive vice president Dan Duquette and Orioles ownership project the team will be competitive again — in 2021.
They were prepared to move everybody who might have free-agent leverage over the next two years or is set to earn significant money over that period. If Duquette could have found buyers for first baseman Chris Davis, designated hitter Mark Trumbo and starting pitcher Alex Cobb, they would have been making plane reservations Tuesday night, too.
Obviously, Duquette wasn’t kidding when he said Sunday that the club had “established a clear direction.” Apparently, the only one standing in his way was center fielder Adam Jones, who decided he wasn’t going anywhere until he becomes a free agent this winter.
Give the Orioles credit for being decisive, which is not a quality that has been associated with them much when it comes to planning. The reason they are doing all this now is that they couldn’t get any of their best young players under contract beyond their first free-agent eligibility.
Still, these were bold moves. They were made in an environment where it might look as though there is little to lose, but there is plenty of risk here for an organization that already was facing annual attendance declines before the 2018 season came totally unraveled. The team is facing an uncertain future regardless, with the long-running MASN litigation threatening to take a big chunk out of its annual revenues. There’s already enough concern about that to spawn speculation about the team moving out of Baltimore.
The logic of each deal is hard to dispute, even the two made Tuesday that sent away popular players who were still going to be around for a while.
Gausman was the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, but he has never lived up to the lofty expectations that followed him out of LSU. He has never finished with a winning record in his six seasons in the major leagues and has been held back by inconsistency throughout his career.
Now, Orioles fans need to brace themselves for the possibility that he’ll go to the National League and bloom the way starting pitcher Jake Arrieta did with the Chicago Cubs after underachieving for three-plus seasons. Gausman still has an electric arm and is early in his prime.
Nobody has to speculate on what Schoop might do in Milwaukee and wherever he ends up after the 2019 season. He was the Most Valuable Oriole in 2017 and had just emerged from a frustrating early-season malaise at the plate.
His value swelled when he turned his season around with an incredible July. He recently hit home runs in five consecutive games to tie the major league record for second basemen and would have broken it if Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Joey Wendle had not gone over the fence to pull one back Saturday.
The Orioles need the fans to embrace this process. The club is going to introduce them to more than a dozen new prospects and hope the promise of a brighter long-term future will keep the customers somewhat satisfied.
They also will save nearly $40 million in payroll over the rest of this season and next and have gained a reported $2.75 million in international slot money, which will allow them to finally be a serious player outside the U.S.
Orioles fans will want to jump on board if the rebuild takes root in a reasonable amount of time, especially if the front office has chosen wisely from the minor league systems of the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Braves and Brewers.
There is no guarantee of that. The Orioles know better than anyone that not all top prospects develop into high-quality major leaguers. The past two decades are littered with high draft choices who have not panned out.
They’ve also misjudged some of their own prospects and dealt high-ceiling players away for short-term gain … or no gain at all.
The words of former Orioles executive Syd Thrift have been echoing the past couple of weeks. He tried to pull off a similar rebuild back in 2000 and famously told everyone who would listen how smart somebody was going to look in a couple of years.
Turned out, nobody looked too smart for almost another decade — until former president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail restocked the Orioles system with some big deals and Duquette built on that foundation to bring the club back to prominence.
No one even knows whether Duquette and manager Buck Showalter will be around to see how all this turns out. They are both just months from the end of their long-term contracts with the club, and no one in ownership has given a firm indication of whether either will be around next season.
The fact that Duquette was given full authority to rebuild the team might be a sign that he’ll get to stick around. Showalter’s experience bringing along developing teams both in Baltimore as well as with the Yankees and expansion Arizona Diamondbacks might also argue for a longer leash.
The case could be made that there already has been enough change for one season.