Playing at a 100-win pace has created a unique dynamic for the Orioles, at least compared to years past. The expectation now, given they can play .500 baseball the rest of the way and still have enough wins to make the playoffs, is that they’ll be buyers at the trade deadline and add to an already impressive roster.
That’s not a given but, provided they decide to add, there are several ways to do it. They can make a trade that alters the trajectory of their competitive window by packaging several top prospects for a starting pitcher who will be under club control for multiple years, or they can scour what could be a rich rental market of pending free agents and fortify their most glaring need — the starting rotation — in a lower-cost way.
Whatever they decide, it could provide a blueprint for how the Orioles will handle future deadlines. Without much precedent for them adding, however, here’s a breakdown of how they might go about making these crucial decisions as attention starts to turn to the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
This wouldn’t be a terribly satisfying outcome, so let’s get it out of the way. If this team is still playing at a 100-win clip in the first week of August, it would be justifiable in two extremely opposite ways. One would be that it has demonstrated it is good enough to continue winning and get to the playoffs, which are essentially a dice roll, so it’s better not to sacrifice any future value when the team can just supplement with those attractive high-minors prospects. The other would be that it’s not worth sacrificing much, if any, future prospect value on a team that is overperforming and has done so at a rate that gets it into that dice-roll playoff series in October anyway.
It would all be a matter of perspective — that this team is good enough on its own, or this team has been lucky and isn’t as good as it has played — to arrive at the same endpoint, which is it’s better to let this ride and not sacrifice any part of the future for the present. Such a decision would be destructive for the goodwill this resurgence has built and thus is unlikely. But denying it’s an option would be foolish.
The big swing
The opposite of doing nothing would be doing something massive. For the last year, the big move the Orioles have been tipped to make (and haven’t) is a trade for a top starting pitcher with multiple years of club control.
Here’s the underlying logic: With well over a dozen attractive hitting prospects from the last few drafts who can be in the high minors by the trade deadline, the team would be wise to capitalize on some of that value in a trade for a high-level starter who can be in their rotation for the next several years. Outside of Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, the club’s most talented pitching prospects, it’s unclear if any such pitchers exist internally to fill that role. The current major league rotation is good but lacks that kind of headlining arm.
Top names in this group include Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes and Guardians right-hander Shane Bieber, both of whom would be free agents after the 2024 season, and White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease, who would be a free agent after the 2025 season. Because of the club control remaining, the Orioles would need to trade an impactful group of prospects. Of the group still in the minors, one assumes Jackson Holliday and Rodriguez are off the table, but that’s probably it.
There are several pitchers with longer-term deals on teams that are either out of or could fall out of the playoff picture that the Orioles could pursue with the potential of using prospect capital to lessen the financial commitment they’d take on with a veteran pitcher.
Any tactic in this lane would require the Orioles to do a few things they haven’t before. One, obviously, is to part with high-level prospects for shorter-term, albeit extremely talented, major league contributors. They didn’t do this in the winter in part due to the belief that their high-minors prospects were improving and thus weren’t at peak value yet, so there was an opportunity cost to trading them in that by August or this coming winter they could be worth more or be better able to help the major league team.
The other new part of this would be committing eight-figure salaries to arbitration players. Burnes and Bieber would be making more next season than the Orioles have paid anyone outside Chris Davis or Alex Cobb under this front office. Cease would get to that level by the end of his club control. Perhaps given their quality, this is part of the natural payroll progression we’ve heard about recently. Given some of the arbitration raises due to Orioles players already on the roster, though, such large commitments to players they trade for might impact team building, depending on the budget ownership gives for payroll purposes in 2024 and beyond.
The rental route
The baby-bear option for the Orioles — not too hot, not too cold, and probably just right— based on how they’ve operated in the last few years would be to add to the team through low-cost, low-risk but lower-upside avenues. In this context, that means players who are pending free agents and thus would be available for a lower prospect cost because the alternative is the player leaving for nothing in the fall.
This was the Orioles’ approach as they were out of contention at the deadline for so many years, and the extra playoff spots now available across MLB mean there may be fewer true sellers than in years past. But there are attractive names that could come available on teams that are struggling — the Chicago White Sox’s Lucas Giolito, St. Louis’ Jack Flaherty and Jordan Montgomery, and Kansas City’s Brad Keller among them.
It’s a deep and in places attractive group, and depending on how a handful of starters with contract options or opt-outs they can exercise this fall, it could be even deeper. This avenue is one the Orioles could tap for relief help if Mychal Givens and Dillon Tate don’t get right.
The attraction here would be a lower cost in terms of prospects, at least theoretically. The scarcity of sellers may drive the price up on the best ones, but these are the types of deals where the Orioles might trade a high-minors prospect in their top 10, plus maybe a pitching prospect and/or an internationally signed lottery ticket, and not feel too much sting in their farm system.
Given how highly they value their prospects, the lower price for upgrades will likely feel more palatable than giving up a haul for a player who will tie up a significant amount of their 2024 payroll as well. The rental option may not be viewed as favorably on the outside as adding a long-term rotation topper who will be around for a while. The Orioles’ recent history shows it might be most attractive to them.