It’s been a slow December in terms of player movement around baseball. Although the Orioles have a new closer in All-Star Craig Kimbrel to highlight their offseason haul so far, the vacuum of non-Shohei Ohtani-related news has created plenty of space for speculation on other fronts.
Where the Orioles are concerned, most of this surrounds trades for starting pitchers. There is quite a need, particularly at the top of their rotation, and that’s been general manager Mike Elias’ stated goal all offseason. National baseball writers who, it should be noted, pilloried the club during its lean years now tout the prospect depth the Orioles have accumulated to make such a deal.
The problem is, it seems every trade you see speculated on is a bad one, one way or another. And there are few, if any, exceptions.
I’ll start by attacking myself. In last month’s chat at Baseball America upon the release of the Orioles’ top prospect list there, I answered a question about a potential trade for Brewers ace Corbin Burnes, who will be a free agent after the 2024 season. The package I suggested was headlined by one of Jordan Westburg, Connor Norby or Joey Ortiz, then also included Jud Fabian, a B-level starting pitcher, along with a little-known international free agent signee.
The first critique is how broad that is. The second is that it’s probably the rare sweet spot of a deal that would feel too rich for the Orioles and too light for the Brewers, who would be pretty assured of getting at least one major leaguer in return for their top starter but would be lacking impact, particularly at the top end.
It became clear while writing it that only ignominy would come from continuing to put together hypothetical trades, and that was the end of that type of answer.
Most aren’t bad in all the ways mine was but are at one of two poles. Anyone whose focus is on the return for said starting pitchers — which is to say fans of the Brewers, White Sox, Guardians or any other team — is always going to aim too high.
Any trade package that involves Jackson Holliday is a nonstarter for the Orioles, and for a pitcher with one or two years of club control left, there’s little chance someone like Samuel Basallo would be in there either. The Orioles probably would consider one of their next three — Coby Mayo, Colton Cowser or Heston Kjerstad — for someone with several years of club control, but a one-year rental seems unlikely.
Yet, for fans of clubs looking to improve based on the return the Orioles send for a top pitcher, the idea of maybe not bringing back one of the Orioles’ top five prospects in a trade for your best pitcher seems implausible. The Angels, after all, traded two of their top prospects for a couple of months of Lucas Giolito. But those players aren’t the same caliber of the top players on the Orioles’ prospect list, which creates friction.
To be fair to fans, it seems as if teams are running into this themselves. The No. 7 or No. 8 prospect on the Orioles’ list might be in the top handful on another team’s list, but for the headliner of this kind of deal to come from that low on the list is a bad place to start.
And yet that’s where the inclination is to start if you look at it from the Orioles’ perspective. It’s natural for a team to want to keep as many of its top prospects as it can, and for fans who are high on those players’ futures to want to do the same. But to start a deal with any of those infielders not named Holliday or Gunnar Henderson and include a couple of names from the next tier of prospects is probably not going to be enough to get another club onboard just from a perception standpoint, even if it would probably be a reasonable deal to get a major league-caliber middle infielder for six or seven years for one year of a starting pitcher.
For that reason, many fan-generated deals fail to pass the smell test. And, if that’s the case on the outside, it’s probably even more challenging for the Orioles as they look to meet and likely work down the asking prices for these pitchers. They know better than anyone else the value of their prospects, and they are working off a strict value-based model to determine whether deals will fit.
Some ultimately do. They could have given up better prospects in other iterations of the Jack Flaherty trade but ended up in a place that felt fair. Other clubs that possessed some of last summer’s top trade assets were evaluating players the Orioles had put into play in potentially major deals, and they were among the top prospects in the organization, so they’d consider moving them for the right return.
The problem is, it’s hard to see what the right return is with all the potential trades flying around. Maybe the Orioles will land on something that works for them. It just feels like any attempt to guess what said trade would look like isn’t going to produce a fair deal for one side or the other and, until then, all we can do is wait.
And maybe keep guessing.