In the eyes of some rival evaluators, the Orioles have been overachievers the past six years. With a win-loss record of 66 games over .500 in that span, Baltimore has reached the playoffs three times, despite inhabiting the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, which is why those evaluators tend to give the Orioles the benefit of the doubt.
“They exceed your expectations most of the time,” said an official. “They figure something out.”
Ingenuity is needed now more than ever in Baltimore, because of stark roster shortages and a mass of contract quandaries. In discussions early this offseason, the Orioles have signaled to other teams that they will have to move some money -- and, specifically, they are prepared to listen to offers for the more expensive pieces from their group of relievers, including closer Zach Britton. It might be that, given the timing of this urgency, they can’t necessarily expect a lot in return.
The Orioles probably could’ve gotten a big haul for Britton if they had moved him in the summer of 2016, and there was measured trade interest this past July, after he was hurt early in 2017. Now the left-hander needs just a year to reach free agency, and after he goes through his last round of arbitration, he’ll probably have a salary of something in the neighborhood of $14 million to $15 million.
The Orioles believe that Britton is fully recovered from his arm trouble and that he’ll wholly regain the command that sometimes eluded him in the last two months of the 2017 regular season. But between Britton’s impending free agency, recent medical history and high salary, Baltimore probably can’t expect to get a big piece in return for the lefty who had one of the greatest seasons ever for a reliever in 2016.
The calendar works against the Britton’s market value, as well: Relievers have almost always had better trade value in July than in the winter, because teams feel a heightened sense of urgency to add one or two more finishing pieces to bullpens.
Kansas City was in a similar situation with Wade Davis last winter. Davis pitched effectively in 2016 but had some arm trouble, and Davis locked into a $10 million salary for 2017 with just one season remaining before free agency. The Royals flipped him to the Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler -- something of a gamble.
“You could see what the Royals were thinking,” said one NL official. “There was a chance they might hit big with Soler, for a year of Davis.”
That deal for the 25-year-old Soler didn’t pan out in his first season with the Royals, as he batted .144 with a .503 OPS in 35 games for Kansas City. And the Orioles probably aren’t going to get a can’t-miss player for Britton, either. If the offers aren’t suitable, Baltimore could just keep Britton for at least the start of the 2018 season; if the Orioles fall out of the race, they could swap him under more favorable trade conditions in the middle of next summer.
But the Orioles have a desperate need for payroll flexibility right now, with only two experienced starting pitchers under contract -- Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. Baltimore has been linked in media speculation to a number of free-agent starting pitchers but probably isn’t in a position yet to bid competitively on the top two tiers of free agents because of other obligations. Adam Jones will make $17.3 million next year, Mark Trumbo $12.5 million and Chris Davis $23 million; and through arbitration, third baseman Manny Machado, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and reliever Brad Brach will all get big raises. Darren O'Day is in line to make $9 million in each of the next two seasons.
If the Orioles bypass a Britton trade this winter, they’ll probably look to move one or two of their other expensive relievers, Brach or O’Day, in an effort to improve a rotation that constantly left Baltimore in early-game holes this past season. Baltimore’s 5.70 ERA for starting pitchers was the worst in the majors last season, and in the second half of 2017, the position players seemed beleaguered after months of being asked to overcome deficits.
The Orioles need help and might have to sacrifice closer Britton to get it.
The Giancarlo Stanton dilemma
Some evaluators walked away from their Giancarlo Stanton conversations with the Marlins believing that Miami probably still needs something of a reality check. Stanton is owed $295 million over the next 10 years in a deal that also includes an opt-out clause after the 2020 season and a full no-trade clause, and because of that enormous contract, there is great skepticism about the Marlins’ request for big-time prospects in return for the National League MVP.
“If he was a free agent this offseason [at age 27], he probably wouldn’t get $295 million -- but he wouldn’t be that far away from those numbers,” said one executive. “He’s still pretty young, and he took a big step forward this year. Maybe the Marlins can find teams willing to take the money. But they’re not going to find teams willing to give up both the money and the prospects, and that’s why [they’ll] probably have to choose: They can either take the talent and eat some of the money, or they’ll have to prioritize the [money] savings.”
The Marlins also have to hope Stanton is open to some of their trade ideas and doesn’t limit their options to a mere handful of teams, such as the Dodgers, Giants, Yankees and Cubs. If the Marlins have an opportunity to dump most of Stanton’s contract and add some talent, it’ll be interesting to see if they’re open to taking back an expensive veteran in return to help make the money work -- someone like Cubs’ Jason Heyward and a portion of the money owed to him; the Giants’ Denard Span or Brandon Belt; or the Yankees’ Jacoby Ellsbury. The Giants probably match up better than any other team in a Stanton trade and are desperate for a power hitter in the middle of their order, but they will try to get the Marlins to take back a bad contract in any deal -- and some rival evaluators wonder if Stanton might shy away from San Francisco. Stanton was the best player on a bad Marlins’ team in 2017, and because the Giants have an older roster of players, it stands to reason he would be in the same position in San Francisco by 2020.
Some teams prefer the Marlins’ Christian Yelich over Stanton because of the money attached to Stanton. But the Marlins have indicated to other teams that their first priority is trading Stanton, and they won’t start seriously entertaining offers for Yelich or Marcell Ozuna until they try to move the biggest contract.
Around the hot stove
Tony La Russa landed with the Red Sox as a special assistant to David Dombrowski, but before that, there had been conversation within the organization about La Russa serving as the bench coach for new manager Alex Cora. ... There has been a lot of speculation about Boston pursuing either J.D. Martinez or Eric Hosmer, but in the end, former Indians first baseman Carlos Santana might be a better fit for a more modest price tag. ... Martinez had a great year offensively, and his agent is reportedly looking for a deal in the area of $200 million, but some clubs think Martinez will be better suited as a designated hitter than playing in the outfield within a few years and note that the highest-paid designated hitter last winter -- Edwin Encarnacion, with the Indians -- got just $60 million.