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'Crazy' Birds: Inside the Orioles' baffling decision not to sell at the deadline

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Olney mystified by Orioles' Hellickson acquisition (0:53)

Buster Olney is confused as to why Baltimore would give up future assets to acquire Phillies pitcher Jeremy Hellickson in order to prop up this year's team (0:53)

BALTIMORE -- Count Zach Britton among those who didn't foresee the Baltimore Orioles being buyers at this year's trade deadline.

"I'm kind of surprised that no one got traded,” said Baltimore's closer on Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the non-wavier deadline expired. "I thought, just based on what I heard, there was a good chance I was going somewhere."

Britton went nowhere. Not to the Astros. Not to the Dodgers. Not to the Indians or the Nationals or to any one of the dozen or so contending teams that were among this year's purchasers.

At this point, it's hard to know exactly what transpired in the final hours leading up to Monday's 4 p.m. ET cutoff. What we do know is that coming down to the wire, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Britton would be shipped elsewhere.

A brand-name closer with a sparkling resume and a contract that's set to expire following the 2018 season, he was this year's version of Andrew Miller: A game-changing back-end reliever who brings filth from the left side and had the potential to impact multiple postseasons for whichever club was willing to pony up for his services. What's more, his current club was floundering.

Since opening the season 22-10, the Orioles have played .405 ball -- the second-worst clip in the American League. Their starting rotation has been abysmal, posting a 5.73 ERA that's the highest in the AL by more than half a run. Despite a slight uptick since the All-Star break -- they were 8-7 in the 15 games prior to the trade deadline -- there was no shortage of data suggesting that, for the first time since general manager Dan Duquette took over prior to the 2012 season, the O's would be in sell mode.

On Monday morning, the O's had a 50-54 record and were 6.5 games out in the AL East. They were 5.5 games back of the second wild-card spot, trailing five teams and tied with two others. Perhaps most alarmingly, next-level math suggested they were actually worse than their record indicated: Based on their minus-72 run differential (only two AL teams were worse), the Orioles should have been more like 14 games under .500 instead of just four.

No wonder FanGraphs gave them less than a 5 percent chance of making the playoffs (3.8, to be exact). All of which is to say, from the outside looking in, Baltimore -- a franchise whose farm system is long overdue for a restocking -- seemed awfully seller-ish.

Britton wasn't the Orioles' only marketable piece, of course. Third baseman Manny Machado, a transcendent talent whose contract also expires at the end of 2018 and whom the Orioles will likely be hard-pressed to re-sign, could've presumably fetched some serious prospect loot. Reliever Brad Brach, though not quite on the level of Britton, was an All-Star last year and has 16 saves this season.

Young starters Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, both of whom were high first-round picks, have been asked about. Even veteran center fielder Adam Jones, another free-agent-to-be after 2018, could have been a potential trade chip if Baltimore was willing to part with its longtime franchise face.

Instead, Duquette and the Orioles held. They held everybody, including Britton. Not only did they not sell, they actually bought, acquiring hurler Jeremy Hellickson from Philly and infielder Tim Beckham from Tampa Bay.

"I'm kind of surprised that no one got traded. I thought, just based on what I heard, there was a good chance I was going somewhere."

Zach Britton

Just how unexpected was Baltimore's behavior at the deadline? Of the 17 MLB teams that were under .500 at the trade deadline, the O's were the only club that fell into the "buyer" category. The other 16 teams either sold or did nothing.

"Nobody is running away with the American League East," Duquette told reporters Monday afternoon shortly after the trade deadline passed, trying to explain his club's actions. "The teams are so evenly matched.”

While Duquette deserves credit for not throwing in the towel, in the process giving Orioles fans the potential (however small) for meaningful September baseball, his comments don't exactly ring true.

Sure, technically no team is running away with the division because New York and Boston are only separated by half a game, but the Yankees have won 10 of their last 14 games. Over the past two weeks they've acquired a handful of key players, culminating with the buzzer-beating blockbuster that netted A-list hurler Sonny Gray.

For the season, they've outscored their opponents by 118 runs. That's the fourth-best differential in baseball and nearly 200 runs better than Baltimore's margin. So mathematically speaking, contrary to Duquette's suggestion, it would seem that the Yanks and O's are not so evenly matched. Still, the Birds and owner Peter Angelos ended up buying, much to the confusion of those both inside and outside the Baltimore clubhouse.

“Not necessarily,” said Britton when asked if he had a sense of his team’s direction. “I think a lot of guys would agree.”

"It's a little crazy," said an executive from a contending team that was involved in discussions regarding Britton. "I'm surprised, but not really. With Angelos, they do things differently."

How differently? In 2015, it took a five-game winning streak in late July to move the Birds over .500 and convince them that they were buyers. The result was an ill-advised deal that sent prospect Zach Davies to Milwaukee -- where his 26 wins since then are six more than any Baltimore starter -- in exchange for outfielder Gerardo Parra, who posted a .625 OPS for a Baltimore squad that finished with an 81-81 record.

Two years later, the O's appear to be in danger of suffering a similar fate, forgoing a golden opportunity to build for the future by choosing to roll the dice in the near-term.

That's not to say they were dead set against dealing Britton. In fact, indications are that they were willing to part with the 29-year-old southpaw, who missed most of the first half with a forearm injury -- but only if the return justified it.

"Aggressive asking prices," said the exec of Baltimore's demands. "Above our threshold."

So ultimately, the Orioles ended up hoarding their All-Star closer (and pretty much everyone else) in hopes of making a run. Maybe that run happens next season, in what will be the final contract year for Britton, Machado, Jones and Brach, not to mention Duquette and skipper Buck Showalter. Then again, maybe it happens this year.

As crazy as it sounds, there are reasons to expect the O's to improve down the stretch. After a shockingly mediocre first half of the season, Machado is hitting .343 since the break with as many walks as strikeouts. Britton and slugger Chris Davis are back from injury, and shortstop J.J. Hardy is expected to return soon.

Following an awful first three months, Gausman (one earned run in his last 20 innings) is showing signs of the second-half dominance he flashed last year. And Ubaldo Jimenez, whose career has long been a tale of two halves, has put together consecutive quality starts, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Good Ubaldo has once again emerged from hibernation.

"Obviously, we can play better than we have," said reliever Darren O'Day, who has been around for all three of Baltimore's postseason appearances this millennium: 2012, 2014 and 2016. "We still have a good group."

If you don't believe O'Day, just ask the Kansas City Royals. Owners of the AL's best record since June 1, they came into Camden Yards on Monday having won 10 of their last 11 games. Naturally, fresh off the deadline, the Orioles took two straight from K.C. to inch a little bit closer in the wild-card race, including a dramatic walk-off win Monday and a convincing 7-2 victory Tuesday.

There are still a gajillion teams ahead of them (give or take), but hey, at least they're moving in the right direction.

"You never know how it's going to play out," O'Day said. "You get in the playoffs, you got a chance. I'm a glass half-full kind of guy."

He'd fit right in with the Orioles' front office.