After plodding through 14 seasons of losing, the Orioles have made the playoffs three times in the past five years.
Although there hasn't been a World Series appearance during that span (33 years, actually), it's been a pretty solid run for this organization. And if the roster remains roughly the same for the next two years, it's conceivable the Orioles will be in playoff contention through 2018.
But after 2018?
Cue the dramatic, foreboding music.
Third baseman Manny Machado is a free agent after 2018. So is closer Zach Britton, center fielder Adam Jones and set-up man Brad Brach. Manager Buck Showalter's contract expires then, and so does executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette's.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy could be gone after 2017 if his option doesn't vest, and starters Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley and outfielder Hyun Soo Kim are all in the final years of their contracts this upcoming season.
That's a whole lot of turnover on the horizon.
The direction of this franchise may be formed in a couple years, but the path starts this winter. The Orioles can make some tough choices now to create a new foundation for 2018 and beyond.
That process starts with exploring trades for Britton and Machado.
Before there's a firestorm of contempt about having to deal with another spate of losing, understand I'm not talking about rebuilding this club; I'm talking reloading. It's what good teams that have financial limitations do on occasion.
Frankly, trading Machado and trading Briton are different issues -- and should be treated as such.
Machado is only 24 and one of the elite all-around players in the game. He's likely going to command a $300 million contract or more if he continues to improve into his age-26 season. The Orioles should spend the next year trying to figure out if an extension can be reached and then, if not, deal him for the best package available next offseason. There's no harm in getting a sense of his value now, though.
Britton, however, is a different story. He turns 29 in December and is coming off, arguably, the greatest season for a reliever in baseball history. He converted all 47 of his save opportunities, allowed just four earned runs in 67 innings pitched (0.54 ERA) and strung together a record 43 appearances without allowing an earned run.
There's no reason why he and his bowling ball sinker can't continue to dominate for years to come. Yet it's hard to believe his value ever will be higher.
One, it's hard to improve on perfect. Secondly, shutdown relievers are currently “the flavor of now” in baseball. Following a postseason in which bullpens played a prominent role, the San Francisco Giants handed competent closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million deal, which set a record for free-agent closers.
The ink hadn't dried on that contract when closer Aroldis Chapman shattered Melancon's record, agreeing to a five-year, $86 million deal with the New York Yankees.
So what will Britton be worth in two seasons if he continues to dominate? The easy answer, given some natural baseball inflation, is $20 million per year. Maybe more.
He'll likely top $11 million in arbitration this offseason with the Orioles, a club that traded Jim Johnson for two fringe players before the 2014 season because they didn't want to pay eight figures to a closer. (The move paid off; Johnson struggled and Britton emerged as a cheaper and better alternative.)
Given his expected worth and the Orioles' previous financial philosophy regarding closers, it just doesn't seem like there will be a long-term marriage between Britton and the Orioles, though both sides enjoy the current relationship. No extension talks with Britton have occurred yet this offseason (and there have been none with Machado, either).
Britton's agent, Scott Boras, said if extension discussions happen, they'd be in January during arbitration negotiations. So the Orioles should know soon just how far apart the sides are.
That should leave plenty of time for the Orioles to define Britton's value in the trade market. So far this offseason, they haven't entertained such trade talk. And that's shortsighted.
I'm not advocating the club needs to deal Britton no matter what, but the Orioles must see if they can take advantage of the frenzy for relievers and/or the big market clubs that have a glaring void at the back end of their bullpens. The iron is scorching hot.
The Orioles have no obvious replacement for Machado at third base or in the middle of the lineup, so dealing him this offseason, no matter the return, would significantly weaken one position on the diamond.
In contrast, Britton's departure would draw from a strength, and though his absence would be felt, the Orioles have three competent set-up men on the roster: Darren O'Day, Brach and Mychal Givens. None may be as dominant in the ninth inning as Britton, but conceivably one should be able to handle the role adequately.
And, assuming the Orioles could pick the right players from another organization, the return for Britton should be able to improve weaknesses on the current club and provide some promise beyond 2018.
Issue 228: December 2016