This is one of the chattiest times of the year when it comes to baseball, and it’s not just the media looking for insights on what a team might be thinking at the trade deadline. It’s other teams, too.
In years past, that meant fielding questions from emissaries of other clubs about who the Orioles might be looking to flip for younger talent. I usually told them everyone who was making more than the league minimum, and I often was right.
This year, it’s the opposite. Everyone wants to know what the Orioles are looking for. During one such conversation, as a scout from another club and I chewed over a trade proposal for a rental starting pitcher that was floating around online and I told him even the modest price felt too steep for the Orioles, he asked me a question that stopped me short: “Are they trying to win the World Series this year?”
It’s a simple question that should have a simple answer, but of course it does not. The reasoning behind one man’s “no” might count for some as “yes,” and vice versa. If that means impacting their farm system to the point where they make significant enough additions before the trade deadline to become the prohibitive favorites for a championship — a steep climb considering FanGraphs gives them a 4.1% chance of winning the World Series with seven teams ahead of them as of Sunday night — there’s no answering yes with a clear conscience.
There are a lot of other ways they can emerge when the dust settles Aug. 1 and, without flinching, say they’re trying to win the World Series. They already added the electric and erratic Shintaro Fujinami to the bullpen, which has the potential to help a bit. They have the quality in their rotation to line up a playoff series, but they need to help these relatively inexperienced pitchers get to October without overexertion or injury. They can supplement to those ends at the deadline without materially impacting the future strength of the farm system and the multiyear contention window they’ve created for themselves.
However they envision doing it, they have eight days left to show everyone the answer is yes.
The question came on the day the Orioles completed an emphatic series win over the Tampa Bay Rays that gave them a two-game lead over the Rays and the best record in the AL at 61-38. They were important wins, and you know that’s the case because Brandon Hyde managed the games like a playoff series, going to Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista three times apiece and hardly putting a foot wrong.
Given how judicious the Orioles have been with those two, and really all of their core relief pitchers under Hyde, these games being treated with such heft tells us plenty. The head-to-head matchups with the Rays can directly influence who wins the AL East and with it a pair of attractive rewards: avoiding the best-of-three wild-card round and likely boasting home-field advantage through the World Series. Approaching this weekend as they did means something, and it shows those prizes do to them as well.
The way they’ve played means there is more at stake this year than any other deadline this front office has encountered here. The Orioles’ long-stated goal of a sustainable, perennial contender didn’t necessarily account for a 2023 team that blasted beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, but it has, and now they must strike the balance of how to weight that against the long-term goal.
General manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias said in May that as the front office continued to “think about balancing short-term and long-term considerations and 2023 is increasingly going well, we’re going to keep leaning into that,” presumably meaning they’d act on this year’s chances. They have with Fujinami so far, and I imagine they will be active in trying to upgrade at what they feel are fair valuations in the next week-plus.
All the reasons those might not be big splashes, outlined here last week, haven’t changed. I would personally corral off the top five or six prospects in the organization and try to add a starting pitcher with the best of the rest. That would still probably, objectively, create a trade in which the Orioles viewed themselves as the long-term losers, even if they were short-term beneficiaries.
The whole idea of operating in the way the Orioles do and valuing, well, value over all else removes emotion from the equation, and that’s useful to remember after a weekend like this. Those were exhilarating, awesome wins that had a material impact on the standings but likely made only small moves on the projection model that drives the Orioles’ decisions, and that tells them how much the blossoming stars on their major league roster and in the high minors will be worth to future championship-aspiring clubs.
Whatever numerical value is assigned to them is likely far higher than the three-month contribution of a rental who could be added this week, even if that near-term contribution could be the difference on the field between a long October and a short one.
The question, ultimately, is how much the Orioles deviate from that ahead of the afternoon of Aug. 1. If the answer is not much, their answer to the question I was asked Sunday afternoon will probably still be yes, even if it’s a tough sell. They will have added a potentially dynamic reliever at a low cost, and can defend riding with this roster into October, as long as there’s a plan to get their rotation there in good health and with innings to spare.
That’s just not how it will be perceived anywhere else — maybe even here. I have my own expectations of what they’ll do, or more to the point what they’ll be willing to do, but I have been wrong before. Still, just imagine having to consider that question four months ago: Are the Orioles trying to win the World Series this year?
To be in a position to take the idea seriously is worth stepping back and appreciating. To not have a satisfying answer in the moment felt strange. Before long, the right response will be clear.