Sunday, August 14, 2022

Why the Orioles should reward their fans and players by becoming buyers at the MLB trade deadline

The Baltimore Orioles head into action just a week away from the All-Star break one game under .500. Without context, hovering around .500 is no great feat. In looking at the standings, the Orioles are sitting in last place and, well, that isn’t exactly a proverbial feather in their collective black and orange caps. 

Once we weed through all the context, however, two key points sit at the forefront of my mind. 

  1. Orioles fans should be ecstatic right now.
  2. The Orioles’ front office should reward these fans by being buyers at the trade deadline (caveats apply, though, and we’ll get to those). 

Now, the context behind the situation is simple. The Orioles have been a laughingstock. The last three 162-game seasons (2018, 2019, 2021) yielded the three highest loss totals in Baltimore Orioles history, which goes back to 1954. The Tigers, Mets, A’s and Phillies are the only other teams with three 108-loss seasons in their entire history. Even worse, 14 current franchises have never even lost that many games in a season once. The Orioles did it in three straight full seasons. 

Surely this started to wear on the fans. We saw it in the Orioles’ reported attendance early on. A team that in the 1990s and early 2000s drew over three million fans per season and over two million from 2012-17 fell to 1.3 million in 2019. That was their lowest full-season attendance for since 1978 and this was only the second year of the radical rebuild. 

We’re now in Year Five. 

Obviously the COVID-19 impact on attendance makes it tougher to compare 2021 to the rest of the seasons, but it was a paltry 793,229 and that wasn’t all COVID-related. Many fans had understandably checked out, or at least quit spending their money on seeing the terrible product in person. 

The point is, this is a fan base that has been beaten down for years. Even the three playoff runs in five seasons from 2012-16 were simply a brief reprieve for them. Since 1997, the Orioles have had a winning record just four times (2012-14, 2016). 

Heading into this season, it was pretty well accepted across the baseball world — even among the Orioles fans still paying close attention — that there were four contenders in the AL East and one bottom-dweller. 

Yes, the Orioles are still in last place, but they have won eight straight games and are 29-20 since May 18. Among AL teams, only the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox have been better in that time period. Overall, the Orioles are only one game under .500 and just two games out of the third wild card. 

That’s a contender. Contenders buy at the trade deadline, right? Of course they do. 

Now, here’s where we need to discuss the caveats. 

First off, and this is a big one, the trade deadline isn’t until Aug. 2. The Orioles have 16 games before then. This season we’ve already seen several examples of how quickly things can change with big winning or losing streaks. It should be painfully obvious that any “buying” I discuss comes with the “if they are within reasonable distance of a playoff spot” attachment. Reasonable is, of course, subjective but if the Orioles are eight games out with four teams in between them and the third wild card, no, that isn’t “reasonable distance.” 

If the Orioles are around four games out, there are those who would argue it isn’t prudent to sacrifice the long-term organizational plan in order to “go for it” this season with what is ultimately a mediocre team. After all, their run differential is -14 and projection systems don’t have them sniffing the postseason (SportsLine has them going 74-88 while Fangraphs pegs them at 75-87; in both cases only three AL teams would finish behind them). 

Then we have to wade through the mindset that says something like “even if they make the playoffs, what are the odds they are going to beat someone like the Astros, then someone like the the Red Sox, THEN someone like the Yankees before even getting to the World Series.” It’s a fair point, because they are ridiculously unlikely to make a run to the World Series. On the other hand, why is that required instead of just making a run to the playoffs? 

The Sports Talk Radio mentality suggests that nothing short of a World Series title counts. We’ve all seen and heard this nonsense from fans and media for years. “(insert team or player) has never won ANYTHING!” 

I’ve grown so tired of this mindset. Go watch Rockies fans in Coors Field in 2007 and tell me that team won “nothing.” Ditto for the 2006 Tigers, 2008 Rays, 2015 Mets, 2016 Indians, 2018 Brewers and we could do this for at least 2/3 of the league. Not only are deep playoff runs — especially when unexpected and/or following long droughts — boons for team revenue, but they end up becoming some of the fondest memories fans have for generations. 

Now, all of those teams mentioned above were in better position, in July, for immediate success than the current Orioles are. I’ll grant that. I’m just pushing against the mindset as a whole. 

The underlying thought process is that only the teams with the very best chances to make deep playoff runs should be trying to win. The radical rebuild mindset, on top of that, would be that it’s better to finish with the worst record in the league than be the first team outside the playoffs. As such, if anything, this logic would dictate that these Orioles should actually be sellers. Yes, even right now. 

We’ve seen this mentality manifest itself with a recent team that ended up making a very deep playoff run. Back in July of 2014, there were prominent websites publishing articles urging the Royals to be sellers, specifically to trade ace James Shields. There was one on July 21, actually. That date matters, because the Royals went on a winning streak starting the next day and would go 41-23 the rest of the way, getting all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. 

What if Royals general manager Dayton Moore was of the mindset that they should have been sellers? We can’t know the fate of the 2015 ballclub that won the World Series, but they surely wouldn’t have made the run in 2014 and I’m quite confident 2015 doesn’t unfold the way it does. 

Odds and projections and everything in that ballpark are useful. I wholeheartedly believe that. They also aren’t infallible. I think sometimes certain people lean too much on them instead of also accepting there’s a human element here. This isn’t a video game. People matter. 

Remember when the Mariners traded stud reliever Kendall Graveman last season and the ensuing uproar from the clubhouse? We can’t be certain there’s a correlation, but they lost seven of their next 10 games. They then finished just two games out of a playoff spot and the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball continued. I can’t help but wonder about the impact there. 

Now, this isn’t to suggest that the Orioles should go all out and trade all their prospects for “win-now” guys and undo all the work they’ve done during the rebuild. A Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz for Chris Archer trade would be detrimental as the Orioles look to move from terrible to mediocre (where they are now) to sustained contention. I’m not arguing otherwise. 

I do believe, however, there’s a call for some fan service here. 

Assuming the Orioles remain in the playoff conversation, I’m urging GM Mike Elias and the rest of his front office to add at the margins. They don’t have to sacrifice their top prospects or even prospects at all. They can trade minor-league organizational depth to add pieces that would be helpful for a big-league push (would Brandon Drury or José Iglesias really cost all that much?). Supplement the team. Show the players in the clubhouse and the fans that you are trying to help. 

That means the clubhouse feels like the front office is behind them, not only for the future, but for this moment in time, and the fans get excited for a possible playoff push at least a year earlier than they had previously hoped. 

More than anything, I’m always going to have a soft spot for, collectively, fans — especially long-suffering fan bases. We go through years of disappointment and relative heartbreak. When the team you love is finally starting to emerge from the abyss, every little victory feels so satisfying. 

Orioles fans are riding high right now. Here’s hoping the front office is able to balance the long-term plan with giving some short-term fan service. And, hey, you never know how the rest of the season is going to unfold after buying. 

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