It was five years ago next week — after an All-Star break full of speculation about a Manny Machado trade — that then-Orioles Executive Vice President Dan Duquette finally moved him to the Dodgers.

That move heralded a rebuild that Duquette ultimately didn’t get to see out, but it is finally paying off at Camden Yards.

On that fateful last day of the All-Star break in 2018, when Machado went to Los Angeles for a five-player return from which only Dean Kremer remains, Duquette promised upgrades in the following areas: “technology, international scouting, facilities, the draft, strengthening our analytics, investing in international scouting, investing in more front office staff to be more in line with our competitors, expanding our nutrition and wellness resources at every level of the organization.”

Those upgrades, along with a holistic improvement in player development, became the areas of focus for Duquette’s successor, Mike Elias, whose team enters the second half with a .607 winning percentage and the chance to be in first place by the end of this weekend.

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It’s been a long road to get to this point. Now that the Orioles are there, Baltimore is awash in companion sentiments: of never wanting a lean spell like that ever again and hoping it all truly proves worth it. That’s part of what makes these next two (and maybe more) months special: the farther things get from those divisive down years, and the more the Orioles win, the better off everyone will be.

How the Orioles spent the years between the Machado trade and their turnaround last year was deeply fascinating to me, so I didn’t mind the focus on player development and building through the draft that helped get them to where they are today. Because I was around the team on a near-daily basis for much of that time and covering the process of the rebuild, it was difficult to step back and evaluate the cost of what the front office did for longtime fans.

Machado wasn’t the only player traded away. So too were Brad Brach, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day, Andrew Cashner, Dylan Bundy, Jonathan Villar, Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Jose Iglesias, Alex Cobb, Freddy Galvis, Jorge Lopez and Trey Mancini. Others who gained traction during those rebuilding years such as Hanser Alberto and Renato Nunez were let go before they got too expensive in the club’s eyes.

Keeping that group together wouldn’t have put a championship banner at Camden Yards, but it would have been better, in the moment, than what ultimately happened. The Orioles lost two-thirds of their games from 2019 to 2021 with payrolls in the bottom five of the league. Even with a pandemic year and no fans in the stands, both by mandate and by apathy for most of that time, MLB’s shared revenue structure on leaguewide television contracts and revenue-sharing programs for small-market teams means the Orioles likely had enough money to be better.

What they wanted to do, though, was to be bad enough for long enough that the last 12 months could happen. They’ve been one of the best teams in baseball since Adley Rutschman was called up last May, and they really hit their stride about a year ago. Last All-Star break, they used what should be their last high draft pick for a long time to take Jackson Holliday No. 1 overall; he will be baseball’s consensus top prospect by next week, when Reds star Elly De La Cruz graduates off of those rankings.

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They have the talent on the roster — as well as the record — to feel good about making the playoffs and maybe even making noise in them. They can also upgrade this roster if they’re truly serious about it.

These are the problems of winning teams, though, and the Orioles are one now. They probably will be for years to come, as the elite talent pipeline Elias promised delivers major league talent to Baltimore at its highest rate yet and hasn’t shown many signs of slowing. It would take a complete collapse for them not to make the playoffs this year. To not advance in any of the coming seasons would be a massive disappointment.

These expectations have existed since before the Machado trade. That 2018 team was a disaster from quite early on, and the 2017 club collapsed in September after a midseason renaissance. By that point, though, those Orioles teams weren’t as beloved as their predecessors from 2012 or 2014 who really signaled that baseball in Baltimore had improved and brought fans back after a previous extended stretch of misery.

This team has the potential to fully reach those levels. It will take those who haven’t already to get past the unpleasant nature of the rebuilding years that got them here. But to be upset about that is, on a basic level, to have wanted the Orioles to be good. That Machado trade five years ago meant they weren’t going to be for a while. It wasn’t until last year that there was any expectation they could be. Now, they really are again.

I’ll never think of an All-Star Game again without remembering being in D.C. and knowing Machado’s time with the Orioles was finished. It was the end of something. There’s a lot to like about the way things are going for the Orioles, but even a year into them being good again, it still feels like the beginning of something. Perhaps, for some fans, it may never lead to heights that make the teardown and stay down phase worth it.

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At least it’s fun again — and hopefully, those days will never return.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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