It’s a rhythm, by now, that feels baked into this trade deadline. The alert comes through of a trade, and it’s not the Orioles. Then the return is reported — the prospect price a contender paid to improve their roster for the stretch run — and all it takes is a little research to arrive at a simple thought: The Orioles probably could have done that if they wanted to.

That’s the reality the team with the game’s best farm system, a claim they’re quick to amplify, is living in during this deadline season. There’s plenty of nuance involved. Strip it out, and you have a bunch of teams chasing the Orioles for the division or playoff seeding getting better as the Orioles, to the extent they’re interested in a given player, letting it happen because another team outbid them.

Everything that’s happened around the game in the last week or so and will happen before 6 p.m. Tuesday will provide a prism through which the rest of this Orioles season is viewed. What’s transpired in the last few days creates a challenging dynamic for the front office to navigate.

Through Sunday night, two top-100 prospects on Baseball America’s most recently updated list have moved. Wednesday night’s deal to send starter Lucas Giolito and reliever Reynaldo Lopez from the White Sox to the Angels was the first to include one. The Angels sent their No. 2 prospect, Jose Quero, a catcher who ranked No. 84 on Baseball America’s top 100, as well as No. 3 prospect Ty Bush, their top pitching prospect, to the White Sox.

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Quero ranked seven spots behind Orioles No. 7 prospect Joey Ortiz (No. 77 overall) on that top 100, and Bush seems similar in profile and stature to lefty Cade Povich, the headliner in last year’s Jorge López trade with the Twins.

In a more complex — and high-profile — deal that was completed Saturday night, the Texas Rangers acquired star pitcher Max Scherzer (at a cost of around $26 million in salary for this year and next thanks to money included in the deal) from the Mets for infielder Luisangel Acuña, who at 21 years old ranks 87th in the most recent top 100.

When speaking Friday about the Orioles’ farm system, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said the team’s internal evaluations regarding its top prospects essentially match the public rankings available, as “players that we rate really, really highly in our system” are “also on the top 100 lists.”

Orioles outfielder Colton Cowser swings for the ball during the second game of their series against the Yankees at Camden Yards on July 29, 2023.
The Orioles likely are reluctant to trade top talents such as Colton Cowser, which complicates their negotiations. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

You don’t have to read too far between the lines to know those are probably players the Orioles want to keep long term — talents such as top overall prospect Jackson Holliday, current big leaguers Colton Cowser and Jordan Westburg, and Triple-A standouts Coby Mayo and Heston Kjerstad. And, with those players off the table, the Orioles are likely running into a couple of issues in negotiations.

First is that it’s probably not a good starting point to corral off a half-dozen players the other team would probably want before conversations even really get going. That’s a reasonable stance for the Orioles to take, especially in the rental market, but all it takes is one team to be willing to give up a higher caliber of prospect than it is to lose out on a player.

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The Orioles’ valuation discipline is probably putting them at a disadvantage to begin with in this seller’s market. Even if, as Elias said, they’re willing to stretch for a deal that’s within arm’s reach, they could simply not be even getting within arm’s reach without these top prospects on the table.

There’s also discrepancy within relative and real value at play. No team is going to go by public rankings, but even if the Orioles’ seventh-best prospect is on par with another club’s second or third best, or the second-10 best prospects in their organization might be in another club’s top 10, no selling club is going to feel like it “won” a trade in which it gave up a coveted major league pitcher for a prospect it seems like the Orioles are actually willing to trade.

Trading two of an organization’s three best prospects, as the Angels did, also betrays an urgency to do so that the Orioles simply don’t have.

As the last few days have shown, though, it doesn’t take a top-100 prospect to secure a rental.

The Rangers traded a pair of prospects who ranked 13th and 15th in their system — right-hander Tekoah Roby and infielder Thomas Saggese — to the Cardinals for left-hander Jordan Montgomery and reliever Chris Stratton. St. Louis also acquired a pair of pitching prospects from the Blue Jays for closer Jordan Hicks, with 21-year-old right-hander Sem Robberse (No. 7 in Toronto’s system) and right-hander Adam Kloffenstein (No. 18) going to the Cardinals.

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If a team is seeking potential starting pitching in exchange for the pitchers it is offloading, the Orioles probably aren’t a match. They’ve made tremendous progress at bringing talented arms into and through their farm system in recent years, but many rival evaluators struggle to identify pitchers they can recommend to their bosses as future starters, which limits the value of Orioles pitching prospects to other clubs.

Grayson Rodriguez isn’t going anywhere, DL Hall is an asset in flux, and the Orioles probably value the next tier of Povich, Chayce McDermott and Justin Armbruester higher than an acquiring club would.

They can make up for that in other ways, though. They have perceived surpluses of middle infielders and outfielders, and now have a flourishing international signing program to supplement that and theoretically fill out trades. The Marlins used two international signees in the Florida Complex League — infielder Marco Vargas and catcher Ronald Hernandez — to acquire reliever David Robertson from the Mets. Vargas was No. 14 on the Marlins’ midseason update due to a strong stateside debut in Florida. The Orioles’ international program could have probably matched that return with FCL players, of which there are several who have caught scouts’ eyes this year.

Elias said Friday that the Orioles were going to seek and make trades in which “the value we’re getting back in a different way shape and form is worth the value that we’re losing.” To this point, that has yielded them Shintaro Fujinami from Oakland for left-handed reliever Easton Lucas.

The market is shrinking for starting pitchers ahead of Tuesday’s deadline, and manager Brandon Hyde’s pregame allusion to the pending trade deadline being a reason Tyler Wells’ rotation spot is in flux signaled that the effort to add a starting pitcher was an active one.

Until they make a deal for a pitcher, the overlay of their own prospect depth on the players traded by teams who are improving this week will do them no favors.