A baseball team could be owned by anyone — John Angelos, David Rubenstein, even George Steinbrenner — and the Orioles’ acquisition of former Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes on Thursday would mean the same thing: This is what contenders do.
It’s been 114 days since the 101-win AL East champion Orioles gathered their guts from the dugout floor of Globe Life Field following a dismantling at the hands of the eventual World Series-winning Texas Rangers. For many of those days, there’s been no choice but to wonder how seriously executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was taking the task of improving on that.
They signed Craig Kimbrel as a fill-in for injured closer Félix Bautista, and that’s basically been it, until Elias fanned the flames of excitement over the pending purchase of a majority stake in the team by trading three valuable assets — left-hander DL Hall, shortstop Joey Ortiz and a first-day draft pick — for one year of Burnes.
It goes without saying that such a move — trading top prospects for a potentially high-impact return who likely will leave the Orioles in a year — is unprecedented in Elias’ tenure atop the baseball operations department. It probably has nothing to do with the sale, which is a good while from being finalized. It also doesn’t signal a full abdication of his long-held principle that the health of the organization comes above all else. It’s simply what teams who want to win do. When you’re close to being a championship-caliber team and have the potential to get closer at a reasonable price, you do it.
Burnes has been an elite starter for the last four years — there’s not much hair-splitting to be done there. He is an ace, and acquiring him prompted the following text from a rival evaluator: “What the Orioles did to the Brewers is not legal in all 50 states.”
He broke out with a 2.11 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP and 13.3 strikeouts per nine in the shortened COVID season, then ripped off three All-Star-worthy seasons in a row after that. He was the 2021 NL Cy Young winner, leading the league with a 2.43 ERA and 12.6 strikeouts per nine. The next year, he led the league with 243 strikeouts. Last season, he led the league with a 1.069 WHIP. Anything you want a pitcher to do well, he does.
Burnes is an Oriole because he has one year of club control remaining before free agency, and just like Elias did so many times with his expensive pending free agents in the bad old years, the Brewers decided to get value for Burnes while they could. He’s an Oriole because, to acquire a pitcher of this caliber in free agency would require significant long-term financial commitments to a Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery, and there’s not a lot of value in the starting pitching market as it is.
One year of Burnes at $15.6 million, provided he’s healthy, is the definition of value, especially when he’s being added to an inexpensive rotation that already features emerging stars Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez, to say nothing of John Means and Dean Kremer with them. The Orioles’ rotation was always going to be hard to improve this winter. No matter who else is in it, having Burnes at the top accomplishes that.
The trade-off for a trade, of course, is the players going the other way. This isn’t the Jack Flaherty trade, in which they punted on players who had little opportunity to help the team in the coming years. They acquired a legitimate ace for two quality young players, albeit players whose value to the 2024 Orioles probably would have been realized only if many, many things went wrong.
Hall was the Orioles’ best relief arm post-Bautista’s injury last year, and there was reason to believe, if he was healthy, the gains he made in 2023 would have translated back to the rotation for 2024. If not, he was likely going to be an elite reliever, and what team can’t use one of those? The Orioles looked at those options, and that’s the key here. If they traded for a starter, he would likely have bumped Hall out of the rotation picture. At that point, trading him with some starter potential made a lot of sense. He’ll likely show up in Brewers camp ready to live up to being the guy they got back for Burnes and proceed to do it. It will sting, but what’s another Jake Arrieta to gripe about?
Ortiz is a different case. His improvement from a hitter with three extra-base hits in 228 plate appearances in short-season ball to a top-100 prospect, thanks to significant strength gains and swing work, is one of the best success stories of this player development regime. A high-character, hardworking player in a system with outstanding teachers and processes to help him be the best he can be. All involved should be proud.
That said, even at his absolute best, Ortiz is comfortably behind two current homegrown infielders already in the majors in Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg on the shortstop depth chart, to say nothing of the game’s top prospect, Jackson Holliday. Ortiz is elite at making contact, but as is the case with most players who can put the bat on the ball that well, swing decisions make a big difference on potential impact. Ortiz’s deteriorated some this year in Triple-A and, even with his standout defense, the Orioles decided he was expendable.
The assets the Orioles are sending to Milwaukee are valuable ones. That includes the draft pick, which the Orioles themselves covet but in this case decided to punt until 2025. Instead of picking three times in the top 35 or so this year, they’ll just have two early picks, their own and the pick awarded for Henderson’s AL Rookie of the Year win. They’ll likely get another after the first round in 2025 if they make Burnes a one-year qualifying offer next November, which he likely will decline for a longer-term deal in free agency.
It’s not a total departure from their core beliefs. The Orioles use their perspective on data and future performance to determine value from everything — draft picks, big leaguers, prospects — and make decisions based on said value. They are getting a ton of it in Burnes at his salary this year. They are giving up a ton of it, too.
This deal boils down to which means more. Until Thursday, no one could have credibly argued that the long-term, lower-cost potential that the likes of Hall, Ortiz and a draft pick represent provided the most value to Elias and this Orioles front office.
Now, the immediate value Burnes provides is more pressing. If this team needed anything, it was an ace, and it acquired one. It’s an unbelievable addition to a team that, hand to heart, I felt would have still contended for a World Series without this trade.
The pending purchase of the team by an investment group led by Rubenstein made rival fan bases worry about how good the Orioles could be long term with the talent in place and vast resources. This trade has nothing to do with that. All it does is mollify any worries here in Baltimore that the Orioles weren’t going to show up on Opening Day better than they were last year.
They will. That’s what contenders do.