Eddie Matz, ESPN Senior Writer 81d

Brainy Birds: Why the Orioles are smarter than us all

BALTIMORE -- So maybe the Orioles knew what they were doing all along.

A little over a month ago, on July 28, they baffled the baseball world by trading for Phillies pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. At the time, it seemed like a Hall of Fame head-scratcher. There the O’s sat, five games under .500 and seven games back in the American League East. In the wild-card hunt, there were seven teams ahead of them and only four behind them. Since a surprising 22-10 start to the season, they’d gone 26-43, a .377 clip that was the second worst in the AL over that stretch and strongly suggested Baltimore’s early-season success was a mirage. As such, they should have been sellers. Or so went the thinking of pretty much everyone outside of Baltimore.

Buck Showalter’s squad was headed nowhere fast. After a nice five-year run in which they made three postseason appearances -- outperforming expectations each time in order to do so -- it seemed like it was time to call it a day. Time to break up the Birdmobile and sell it off for parts. At a minimum, it seemed like a foregone conclusion GM Dan Duquette would unload closer Zach Britton, whose contract was set to expire after next season, in exchange for the kind of haul that impact relievers like Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman fetched in deadline deals last summer. The kind of return that could almost singlehandedly replenish Baltimore’s farm system and help insure the club’s long-term viability. If Duquette and owner Peter Angelos wanted to get really aggressive, they could’ve also traded Manny Machado and Adam Jones -- two other big-name Orioles slated for free agency next year -- and officially kicked off the mother of all rebuilds. Instead, Duquette doubled down.

On July 31, three days after getting Hellickson, Baltimore acquired shortstop Tim Beckham from the Rays. What’s more, despite increasingly persistent rumors that a Britton deal was imminent (the Astros, Dodgers and Indians were all in play), the O’s held on to their closer, officially cementing their status as one of the unlikeliest buyers in recent memory. How unlikely? Of the 17 teams that had a sub-.500 record through July, Baltimore was the only one that fell into the “buy” category. Even the Twins, who were right at .500 when they traded for pitcher Jaime Garcia on July 24 but then sent him to the Yankees less than a week later after losing four of five, were self-aware enough to sell. But B’more bought. Not only did they purchase, they purchased players who weren't exactly what you'd call needle-movers. At the time of his trade, Hellickson -- a 30-year-old former Rookie of the Year whose best days are well behind him -- had a 4.73 ERA with the Phillies and had surrendered 22 homers in 112 ⅓ innings. Although Beckham was a former top overall pick in 2008, he was already 27 years old and had a career WAR of 2.5 in four seasons with Tampa.

By buying instead of selling, Baltimore raised eyebrows across the baseball world. A month later, the only thing the Orioles are raising is their odds of making the postseason.

Thanks to a 17-12 August that finished with seven wins in eight games, the O’s have upped their playoff odds from a snowball’s chance in hell to a snowball’s chance in Hell, California. On July 31, FanGraphs gave the Birds a 4 percent probability of making the postseason. A month later, following their 1-0, extra-innings win on Friday night, they're only a game and a half behind Minnesota for the second wild card, and their playoff odds had risen to 15 percent. At the core of that comeback is Beckham, who's been a catalyst at the top of Buck Showalter's lineup. His .394 average in August was the best in the bigs. His 50 hits were the most ever in one month by an Oriole since some other shortstop named Ripken. Beckham has been so productive J.J. Hardy -- a fixture at short who returned on Friday after missing two and a half months with a broken wrist -- will likely find himself on the bench for the foreseeable future.

“Anybody that gets drafted 1-1 has a lot of talent,” says Duquette. “This month, he's fulfilled that talent. He's fulfilled the promise that made him the top player in the draft.”

Beckham isn’t the only one boosting the Birds.

After a brutal first half, Machado has looked a whole lot more like the stud who finished top five in the MVP voting each of the past two years, posting a slash line of .345/.374/.599 since the break. All-Star second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who walked his team off in the 13th inning on Friday, has continued a breakout season in which he’s putting up decidedly un-second-baseman-like numbers (30 HRs, 101 RBIs). Just like last year, righty Kevin Gausman has been a completely different pitcher in the second half (3.12 ERA, down from 5.85 in the first half), and fellow first-rounder Dylan Bundy -- who tossed a one-hit, 12-whiff shutout in his last start -- has benefited from the six-man rotation Showalter has been using following the addition of Hellickson.

Put it all together and the Birds are back in contention, exactly where those inside the organization thought they would be all along. “We believed in our team,” says Duquette. “We knew that we could play better ball.”

Just because the O’s are playing better ball though, that doesn’t necessarily justify their deadline decisions. For a team that’s made the postseason three of the past five years and reached the American League Championship Series, anything less than another LCS appearance could be viewed as stasis. Especially when you factor in the cost. By not capitalizing on any of their trade chips (relievers Brad Brach and Mychal Givens also had "commodity" written all over them), the Orioles passed on an opportunity to stockpile prospects and build for the future. If they somehow manage to make the postseason this year and somehow manage to play deep into October, then maybe it will have all been worth it. If not?

“I think it’s fair to wonder,” says Britton. “If we don't get to where we want to, the World Series, by next year, then you've got a lot of guys that are free agents. Depending on who you choose to sign long term, it takes a huge hit out of our organization, the guys that are going to leave pretty soon. For the guys in here, the goal isn’t just to get into the postseason, but to get far into one. I mean, we've been to the ALCS before, so anything other than that or further, it's definitely not worth it. But that's more for Dan, his vision on how he sees the organization going forward.”

As you might imagine, based on the buttons he pushed in July, Duquette doesn’t necessarily see it the same way.

“The idea in the big leagues is to win the game today and then worry about the game tomorrow,” says Baltimore’s GM. “The Oriole ownership wants to put the best team on the field every year for the fans. The fans want to see us try to win the pennant, and the players do too. That's what we're trying to do.”

Despite the team’s efforts, the fans don’t seem particularly drawn in. At least not judging by the number of butts in seats. On Thursday, the Orioles squared off at home against a division rival (Toronto) in the opener of an important four-game series. They came into the game riding a season-long seven-game winning streak that had them three games over .500 for the first time since early June and sniffing that second wild-card spot. Oh by the way, the weather was perfect and school still wasn’t back in session. There were fewer than 14,000 fans on hand at Camden Yards to watch, a sign perhaps the good people of Baltimore -- much like we so-called experts who roasted the Orioles a month ago -- are having a hard time buying the Birds as buyers. Not that the guys in black and orange are bothered.

“All we have is our teammates and the guys in the locker room,” says Beckham. “We're not worried about what everybody outside the team is thinking. The end goal is to win baseball games.”

Lately, the Orioles have been doing a fine of job of that.

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