In a week when prominent voices in the baseball landscape propagated the idea that the Orioles acquire MVP front-runner Shohei Ohtani with their league-best core of prospect talent, the club instead executed a trade that’s much more their style in acquiring reliever Shintaro Fujinami from the Oakland Athletics.
Fujinami, in his first MLB season after a decorated career in Japan, struggled badly as a starter early in the year but steadily improved coming out of the bullpen as the season progressed. He has an upper-90s fastball that’s averaged 99.6 mph this month, and he’s featured his splitter — a pitch the Orioles’ program values for its effectiveness against both righties and lefties — more often.
If I had to guess, they’ll continue to refine his pitch mix — maybe helping his sweeper along as they have so many others, maybe just sticking with his cutter as a third pitch — and tell him to trust his stuff in the zone and hope it benefits him the way it has so many others.
To say this is the type of move to expect this trade season would be misleading; that would imply there will be others, even as the Orioles seem to have needs in both their rotation and bullpen, even after this.
But nearly five years of this Orioles front office and its dogmatic view of how to build a long-term contender, its perspective on the potential value and appreciation of its prospects, and its discipline in adhering to these beliefs certainly lend themselves more to moves like this than a major splash.
The Orioles do, as many have long known and those now deigning to pay attention to them are learning, have the prospect capital to acquire any player on this month’s trade market. They did in the winter, too, and held onto them. But just because the team’s major league fortunes have well and truly changed — they head to Tampa Bay for a massive four-game series in first place by a few percentage points and at 58-37 boast the league’s best record — doesn’t mean the organization’s philosophies and belief structure changed along with them.
For years, the data-driven front office led by Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal benefited from the belief that teams trading players away at the deadline have the upper hand because multiple teams interested in the same players bid the price up and create a seller’s market, and there are only so many players available in a given trade season.
It would be impossible to sell subtracting from this club at this point, but to expect a full swing to the other end of the spectrum and winning an auction for a player good enough to help them for three months — which would amount to trading two or three players who can help the Orioles potentially contend for the rest of the decade or beyond — seems far-fetched, even if there’s merit to it.
They showed this winter, their first with true competitive aspirations, that they were willing to offer free agents what they felt was fair but not engage in bidding wars, causing them to lose out on targets who took better offers elsewhere. They also made just one trade from the game’s top farm system, sending infield prospect Darell Hernaiz to Oakland for left-hander Cole Irvin and minor league right-hander Kyle Vrbitsky.
That was a low-risk, medium-reward gambit in sending a prospect who was talented but may not have had a future in Baltimore away for a controllable starting pitcher with a decent track record in the majors. The extent the Orioles even engaged in larger trade talks is unclear, but their aversion to executing anything significant was based in how they value their own young players.
The thinking then was that the players’ demonstrated ability to improve, combined with a coaching structure that continues to foster that growth, was liable to make their prospects even better and, thus, worth more to either the Orioles or an acquiring club in the future than in the winter of 2022. In some cases, that’s true. Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser elevated their stock and are in the majors, Coby Mayo and Heston Kjerstad are now top-100 prospects producing in Triple-A, and Joey Ortiz hasn’t done anything to lower his value. Others, such as Kyle Stowers and to a lesser extent Connor Norby, might not be as attractive to another club this month as they were in the winter.
It’s a sound place to start from, even if a first-place ballclub and the potential to win the division and gain an advantage in October create a higher set of stakes than the Orioles could have imagined for this deadline and put a near-term destination into their long-term project to build a sustainable, perennial contender.
This deadline will be a significant test case for how the Orioles operate at the deadline. If they are going to pragmatically view the value of a prospect going out the door and his potential long-term value against the near-term gains a rental player could bring, the deals available will pretty much only be ones like Wednesday’s.
Left-hander Easton Lucas, a 26-year-old reliever who had scouts buzzing all season with his sustained increased velocity and new cutter, seemed like a fair price to give up, so the Orioles offered it and secured Fujinami’s services.
That’s a long way from packaging three or four players from their top-30 prospect list for one or two postseason runs with a more established player, as would be required for Ohtani and pretty much any other player of a certain caliber in the next two weeks.
To adhere to a statistical model and framework for decision-making is to not get swept away in that kind of short-term thinking, even if the benefit of a more talented roster in the postseason is real. The reality is that teams willing to make those nearsighted moves will improve, and that would impact the Orioles’ chances of playing deep into October.
In acquiring Fujinami, the Orioles have protected themselves against an inactive trade season. By the time the Aug. 1 deadline rolls around, he could already be an integral part of their bullpen. And, we could have an even deeper understanding of where expectations should be for the Orioles when it comes time to make splashy moves to add to their club.