Just about everyone in baseball is obsessed with the whereabouts of Manny Machado by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and beyond, but what's gone overlooked is that the gifted shortstop's eventual destination isn't even the Orioles' first priority as the trade deadline approaches -- nor should it be.
Getting closer Zach Britton up and running fast enough to determine his market value could very well have a bigger impact on both the short and long term than a decision on Machado. That raises a question which potentially affects any team hoping to be playing in the final round of the postseason in October:
Will the Orioles once again play a prominent role in the Houston Astros' chances of winning the World Series?
Make no mistake about it, the O's were significant players in the Astros' run last year -- even though you won't find any documented proof. A trade that wasn't made for Britton set Houston on a course to make the deal for starting pitcher Justin Verlander, which proved to be the Astros' defining moment.
Desperate for a closer, the Astros had an offer on the table for Britton that, according to multiple sources, was similar to the one the Tigers took in exchange for Verlander. Only after the deal was either turned down or ignored (depending on the source) did the Astros turn their sights to Verlander -- a move that proved to be fortunate, especially given Britton's limited availability the last two months of the season.
For the record, the three players sent to the Tigers were 20-year old right-handed pitcher Franklin Perez, apparently the signature piece who has been injured and has yet to pitch in the Detroit organization, 21-year old outfielder Daz Cameron, who is hitting .271 for Class A Lakeland in the Florida State League, and 23-year old catcher Jake Rogers, who has a .171 average with Erie in the Double-A Eastern League.
Early returns suggest that was a good deal for the Orioles to pass on, but if they had been able to substitute third baseman Colin Moran for Rogers it might have been a different story. The 25-year old Moran, nephew of former Oriole B.J. Surhoff, ended up being the centerpiece of an offseason deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates that sent right-hander Gerrit Cole to Houston. Moran's now doing a solid job as the Pirates' third baseman and would've been a nice fit for the O's.
Instead of adding the closer they still need, the Astros traded seven players and added two top-of-the line starters in Verlander and Cole. Moran, blocked by the Astros' sterling infield, was the only top-rated prospect lost in the process.
So, here we are a year later and the Astros have the deepest starting rotation in baseball -- and no bona fide closer. When push came to shove in the seventh game of the World Series last year, the Astros turned to a starter, Charlie Morton, to pitch the last four innings and secure a 5-1 win, almost unheard of in this age of specialization. Seven months later the Astros are still in the market for a closer -- and Britton is even more available than he was a year ago.
The Orioles, meanwhile, are faced with all kinds of tough decisions -- none more imminent than how to deal with their record-setting left-hander. Britton is an elite closer when healthy, but he is coming off a difficult Achilles injury and will re-join a team that presents few closing opportunities. Manager Buck Showalter may have to resort to mid-game situations just to find opportunities to showcase Britton, a free agent at the end of the year. True save situations are hard to come by for the lowest run-scoring team in the American League.
Unlike Machado, Britton doesn't figure to get a qualifying offer that would afford the Orioles draft choice compensation, so this is a case where making the best possible deal makes sense. There will be precious little time for interested teams to gauge Britton's progress -- and for the Orioles to weigh potential offers. It's a window that won't be open for long.
A quick fix for a closer of Britton's caliber, assuming he has enough opportunities to prove he's healthy, is less complicated than trying to assess a short-term value of a player like Machado, whose value will best be determined over a long haul. There'll be more teams looking to rent a closer than a position player, even one with the star quality Machado brings to the table.
The stage is set for the same teams to be dance partners once again. A year ago, the Orioles did the Astros a huge favor by either turning down or not countering an offer for Britton. It's realistic to surmise that the Astros wouldn't have won the World Series with Britton and without Verlander. They most likely wouldn't have survived the American League Championship Series, either, had they gotten that far -- all of which probably makes deposed Yankees' manager Joe Girardi wonder what might have been. After the Yankees lost the AL Championship to the Astros, 4 games to 3, Girardi was dispatched.
If the Astros come calling again, chances are the Orioles will be listening -- and a lot more receptive. Last year it was a deal the Orioles could refuse, and the one the Astros didn't make, that led to a World Series run.
Will the opposite be the case this year?
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com