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Let’s jump back to late-July for a moment, shall we?
…The Orioles are just 1.5 games up in the East, and don’t have near the run differential that the Rays or Rangers do: they might have the best record in the AL at the moment, but this doesn’t mean they’re the league’s best team. This isn’t to say the O’s are bad, either, it’s just that it’s entirely possible their true talent level is closer to that of the AL East’s (above-.500) bottom teams than what you’d expect from the division leader. Now, anything can happen in October, but (1) you’ve got to get there first and (2) wouldn’t it make sense to improve the chances of “anything” happening when you do get there?
The Orioles aren’t going to make a deal if they aren’t willing to “lose” it from a value standpoint. Yes, trading away a bunch of years of control could be a problem in a vacuum, but the Orioles aren’t in a vacuum. They’re trying to — or at least are supposed to be trying to — win the AL East and then go deep in the postseason. If they give up years of control and have to spend a little bit more than they currently are in order to put themselves in that position, then they should. They’ve developed so many quality prospects already, with more to come, so we know they’ve got the organizational structure to produce inexpensive young talent. And sure, their draft position will be worse in the future the more successful they are, but again: the Dodgers. Los Angeles hasn’t even finished under .500 since 2010, and that was just one game under: they haven’t had fantastic draft position in ages, and yet, the farm keeps producing. It can be done, and it should be done, and hopefully the Orioles can manage to improve in the next 24-plus hours rather than sitting on their thumbs, for “fear” of setting the farm ablaze.
Baltimore did not make a major move that sent prospects out for the kind of impact talent that could better their chances at both a postseason berth and a deep postseason run. Now, to be fair, the Orioles did end up winning 101 games — though they picked up all of half-a-game on the Rays in the standings in the time between that July 31 post and the end of the ‘23 season — and their run differential took a leap forward, as well, going from +50 on July 31 to a season-end +129. Their expected record wasn’t quite as good as their actual one, but 94-68 is still a good team. Good teams lose all the time, though: Baltimore’s actual record made them look like a great team, and they still lost 61 times, so dropping three in a row to the Rangers — who had a better run differential and a better expected record and only lost the AL West lead because the Astros won their last four in a row — isn’t some grave injustice or major upset. Just one team can advance, and one team is. It’s just not the Orioles this time.
Now, the Orioles might have traded prospects away for obvious upgrades at the deadline and still lost to the Rangers. The thing is, though, that all of this is about improving the odds. Baltimore knew what they were at the trade deadline, what they were up against, and decided not to make any major changes that would cost them in prospects or cash. It worked out for the rest of the regular season, but the Rangers, a team that is at least as good as the Orioles and has had scouts preparing the roster for this very matchup as all teams do for postseason play, put a stop to that.
O’s exec Mike Elias didn’t want to “set the minors on fire” with a deadline deal that shipped out too many prospects, but that’s just an excuse. The O’s are running the Rays’ playbook here, with a need to make cash-neutral acquisitions, and against opponents more willing to spend to acquire the last necessary piece or two and improve their chances of sticking around in the postseason. The Rangers, with a payroll nowhere near Baltimore’s, are one such team. That kind of team is always going to be in the postseason. Ask the Rays, a team that, for all their success in getting to the playoffs, doesn’t have any championship banners to raise, because for all their skill at identifying talent and making low-cost acquisitions, they refuse to take that last extra step to improve their chances.
Now, for the efficiency lovers out there, yes, it’s impressive that the O’s managed the season they did without spending more, just like it’s always impressive that the Rays manage to do this. Shouldn’t you want more, though? No one is demanding that the Orioles exceed the luxury tax threshold or outspend the rest of the AL. Just that they take some of their overflowing farm system and divert it toward the needs they do have. It’s a good sign that Baltimore was able to put together the rotation it did the way they did. It’s also a good sign that their prospects have played so well once they hit the majors, and that they were able to coax quality partial seasons out of the likes of Aaron Hicks. That’s a base, though: chances are that the window will only be open for so long, as there are more cheap teams like the briefly-good Pirates out there than perpetually good cheap teams like the Rays, and the Orioles have to do something to improve their chances while said window is open.
Whether it’s spending money they have no matter what owner John Angelos might say with his invented math, or dealing away some prospects they don’t have a clear space for in the majors to bring back something they do need, the O’s need to improve. There’s a quality base here, a bright future for the kids already on the roster and those still to show up, but baseball is cruel and difficult enough to succeed in without intentionally making it more difficult for yourself, as the O’s have been doing.
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