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It's Hard To Buy Into The Plan Of Hope The Orioles Are Selling

August 15, 2017
I guess we should have taken Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette at his word last month when he said he didn't see his club as sellers but instead was focused on improving the team for a 2017 playoff run.

That's what he told season-ticket holders during the club's annual "Midseason State of the Orioles Address." At the time, I thought Duquette was playing to his audience. I mean, who wants to tell consumers who have paid good money to see a certain product that, hey, we're weakening that product for the time being, but thanks for your money?

Then Duquette made good on his promise -- at least the assertion he wouldn't be a seller -- by trading for right-handed pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and shortstop Tim Beckham in separate deals before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

He gave up two minor league pitchers, some international bonus slot money and seldom-used outfielder Hyun Soo Kim.

In other words, he brokered minor, under-the-radar deals, the kind that Duquette has made frequently during his six-season tenure in Baltimore.

They also seemed to be moves that fell into the category of too little, too late. 

The Orioles were 48-54 when Duquette acquired pending free-agent Hellickson to supplement a rotation that had the worst starters' ERA in the American League by more than a half run. 

Hellickson has had some success during his career -- he was 67-63 with a 3.98 ERA in parts of eight seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks  and Philadelphia Phillies -- but he was 6-5 with a 4.73 ERA in 20 starts with the Phillies before the trade.

He's an upgrade to the rotation, but not the kind of major improvement the Orioles needed to be a legitimate contender. 

Beckham, the former first overall pick in 2008, is only 27, has solid pop for a middle infielder and his speed on the basepaths has already given the Orioles an ingredient they didn't have. He's also signed through 2020, so he's a potential replacement for J.J. Hardy next year and beyond.

We don't know whether 2015 third-rounder Garrett Cleavinger and 2016 sixth-rounder Tobias Myers -- dealt to the Phillies and Rays, respectively -- will become major league stars, or even make it to the majors. That won't be known for a while.

So, in a vacuum, Duquette's big league acquisitions in July can be viewed as acceptable deals at this juncture. Both could help, and, indeed, the Orioles won five straight after the Hellickson deal was announced. Beckham hit and dashed around the bases during his first few Orioles games, and Hellickson made his Orioles debut a memorable one with seven shutout innings in a win against the Kansas City Royals.

Yes, buying and not selling at the trade deadline can provide a psychological boost for a club, and it can ride that for a spell. 

Ultimately, though, reality sets in. Hellickson may return to his 2016 form -- a 12-game winner with a 3.71 ERA for the Phillies -- but that does little if the rest of the Orioles' rotation can't consistently pitch well. Duquette conceded that point, sort of, anyway.

"To stabilize the rotation, we've got to get some of the guys in the rotation to pitch like they've established for themselves over the course of their careers," Duquette told reporters. "Jeremy Hellickson will certainly help, but to have the other guys pitch like they are capable of, that would be good, too."

The whole problem here is that the Orioles went into the 2017 season with "ifs" encompassing the rotation. It would be good if Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy took the next step, if Chris Tillman were healthy and if Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley could have rebound years.

With fewer than two months to play in the season, the "ifs" remain, some more pronounced than others. No questions were answered by the rotation at Triple-A Norfolk, which has its own set of question marks.

That's why Duquette's decision not to be a seller is so maddening for some. Because there is no apparent help in a shallow farm system, and the Orioles may have been able to supplement that quickly if they had traded elite big leaguers such as relievers Brad Brach and Zach Britton at the deadline.

Ultimately, the Orioles didn't get the offers they wanted in return for their most-coveted pieces, so they didn't pull the trigger. It's hard to know whether that was a good decision without knowing all the names involved; certainly, the Orioles don't need to give away Brach or Britton, both under team control through 2018

What's confounding is that the Orioles didn't get better for the future and didn't take a major shot for 2017, either. I could have gotten behind either plan. Instead, it just seems like there wasn't really a plan.

What it seems to me is that Duquette and Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who are both without formal contracts after 2018, and club owner Peter Angelos, who turned 87 in July, are simply hoping a rotation that may break the organization's mark for highest ERA in a season (currently held by the 2008 Orioles' rotation) will suddenly figure things out collectively.

It doesn't usually work that way in baseball. 

But, for argument's sake, let's say it does. Let's say the rotation becomes consistent in the final two months and the Orioles push their way into a wild-card spot.

Once in the playoffs, they'll still have a major uphill battle to knock off AL teams that are clearly better: the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Maybe they can upset one. But run the table?

I can't imagine it. And so, heading into the 2017 offseason, the Orioles likely will be dealing with a rotation that will lose four (out of six) starters to free agency, with the exceptions being Gausman and Bundy, and no obvious replacements ready. 

They'll also be looking at a competitive window that appears to be shutting. Third baseman Manny Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, Britton and Brach are all eligible for free agency after 2018. 

And they did little -- except for the addition of Beckham -- to address those concerns this July.

I guess none of it matters if the Orioles shock the world, are buoyed by the additions in July and get to the World Series.

Then what Duquette promised to the season-ticket holders last month was prophetic.

I'm just not buying that "plan of hope" right now.

Issue 236: August 2017