Sunday marks three years since the start of an excruciating rebuild that still has no end in sight with the last-place Orioles returning from the All-Star break with the worst record in the American League.
Even after declining to trade star player Manny Machado sooner in favor of trying to make a final playoff run in what turned out to be a historically awful 2018 season, former club architect Dan Duquette still had an opportunity to salvage meaningful value for the four-time All-Star infielder and put the inevitable rebuilding effort under current general manager Mike Elias on more promising footing.
Unfortunately, the return on the deal that began the roster demolition looks dubious at best, a reality that wasn’t helped by the pandemic canceling the 2020 minor league season. The Machado trade serves as both a cautionary tale not to wait too long to move a valuable asset and a reminder that major league clubs are very reluctant to part with quality prospects, the latter point relevant as current general manager Mike Elias weighs what to do with inspiring slugger and fan favorite Trey Mancini — who becomes a free agent after 2022 — and others two weeks before the trade deadline.
In hindsight, the Orioles couldn’t have expected too much for a three-month rental of Machado in an era when organizations value cheap, young, controllable talent more than ever. According to The Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, just five top-50 prospects have been dealt over the last four seasons and none in exchange for a rental player. At the same time, Machado was worth 2.5 wins above replacement for the Dodgers in 2 1/2 months of the 2018 regular season and helped Los Angeles to a second straight World Series appearance that October, meaning the Orioles certainly should have expected something of real note for the superstar infielder.
The progress report three years later is awful.
Considered the centerpiece of the return after hitting two home runs in the 2018 All-Star Futures Game just days before the trade, 24-year-old outfielder Yusniel Diaz entered Friday batting .167 with a .502 on-base plus slugging percentage in 92 plate appearances for Triple-A Norfolk this season. Having already missed more than a month with an upper leg injury earlier this year, Diaz is reportedly hurt again and was just 1-for-30 with 13 strikeouts in July before suffering the latest ailment earlier this week. With current Orioles outfielders Anthony Santander and Austin Hays hampered by injuries in the first half, opportunity was there for Diaz to force his way to the majors and never look back, but he continues to look more suspect than prospect with a number of injuries hampering his development since his acquisition.
Yes, Diaz is still young enough to regroup and establish himself as a future piece, but an .807 OPS in an injury-plagued 2019 at Double-A Bowie, a disrupted development year due to the pandemic, and a disastrous 2021 campaign aren’t inspiring much confidence in the Cuban outfielder who appeared to be on a fast track to the majors at the time of his acquisition. The frequent injuries alone make it difficult to put faith in Diaz, something the Orioles are already enduring with Santander and Hays in their current outfield.
Right-handed pitcher Dean Kremer has been one of the biggest disappointments on the 2021 Orioles after posting an ugly 7.25 ERA and 6.53 fielding independent pitching mark — indicating he hasn’t been all that unlucky either — in 12 starts in the first half and again being demoted to Norfolk late last month. The 25-year-old showed promise in posting a 4.82 ERA in his first four major league starts last September, but even a 6.23 ERA in five starts for the Tides this season justifies an extended stay at the Triple-A level where he’s logged only 41 career innings. Like Diaz, more limited Triple-A experience warrants more patience, but Kremer’s age and inability to merely be more competitive in the majors this year make one wonder if he’s suited to be a bullpen arm at best.
Though never projected to be a top-half-of-the-rotation starter like top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall, Kremer is a headliner for the current wave of young Baltimore arms who failed to impress in the first half of 2021 outside of the currently injured Bruce Zimmermann. It’s a development that certainly isn’t expediting the club’s hopeful return to relevance.
Currently ranked as the No. 20 prospect in the Orioles system by MLB.com, infielder Rylan Bannon, 25, is batting just .180 with a .595 OPS in 110 plate appearances at Norfolk after missing more than a month with a strained oblique. Second and third base — his primary positions — have been statistical nightmares for the Orioles, but Bannon hasn’t done anything to even put himself in the conversation for a promotion to this point.
Right-handed pitcher Zach Pop was taken in the Rule 5 draft last December and currently holds a 5.81 ERA for Miami, but the hard-throwing 24-year-old has probably shown enough promise to remain with a Marlins club not going anywhere this season anyway.
And the final player coming back in the Machado trade was journeyman infielder Breyvic Valera, who appeared in 12 games for the Orioles in 2018 and is now playing at the Triple-A level in the Toronto system.
If Duquette had made a bold Syd Thrift-like claim at the time that “somebody is going to be able to sit up here three years from now and say how smart they are,” it would already be a popular internet meme. In fairness, the lack of vision from ownership and a strained relationship with then-manager Buck Showalter didn’t make Duquette’s job any easier, but it doesn’t make anyone still invested in the Orioles feel any better now.
The return on the rest of that 2018 fire sale that included closer Zack Britton, starting pitcher Kevin Gausman, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, and relievers Darren O’Day and Brad Brach doesn’t look any better — outside of veteran infielder Jonathan Villar, whose salary was dumped after 2019 anyway — with reliever Dillon Tate and Zimmermann being the only prospects to show anything of promise in the majors to this point. One can only hope the trades made by Elias work out much better for an Orioles club now looking at its third 100-plus-loss season in four years.
Trading Machado was necessary at the time, but it marked the start of the official bitter end to the only winning era of Orioles baseball in this century. Having so little to show for it three years later isn’t helping fans’ patience, even as a different regime calls the shots and tries to lead the organization back to contention.