I’ve been busy lately and haven’t been able to cover the full ins and outs of the season. But I was thinking about the Trade Deadline a little. Not any of the big rumors or prospective trade proposals, though. Instead, it’s something related to my last few pieces, talking about the Orioles and the rebuilding process.
In the time since my last check-in, Baltimore has been on something of a tear (especially compared to their recent history). They’re currently playing .500 ball, fourth in the division and 3.0 games out of the Wild Card race (now 52-51, 2.5 back). Even back in the winter, while I was writing about how this compared to the Astros final season before returning to playoff contention, I don’t know that I expected things to be going quite this well by the trade deadline.
Which has opened up a few questions about what the team will do at said deadline. I haven’t seen many rumors about the Orioles being buyers, but I don’t know if anyone blames them for that, necessarily. Sure, they’re only 3.0 games out, but that’s still 3.0 games back of the third Wild Card (which, for those who have forgotten last offseason’s CBA results, takes effect this year), and with two more teams between them and current-third Wild Card Tampa Bay. And those two extra teams between them and a playoff spot are the Guardians and the White Sox, both of whom (leaving aside any arguments of roster quality) will have easier schedules down the stretch thanks to the magic of the AL Central (the Orioles are now half a game ahead of the White Sox and Red Sox, but still 1.5 behind Cleveland). Add in that four of those five teams in their way have positive run differentials compared to the Orioles’ slightly negative margin (and the fifth, the White Sox, are definitely underachieving)… it’s probably fair to say that this isn’t the year the Orioles should be going all-in as buyers, at least. They are dark horses at best.
Of course, I’m also not sure that they should be sellers. However, the one rumor that has been swirling around has been that Trey Mancini might be on the block. Headlines at major publications noted after his impressive game last Thursday that it might be his last home appearance at Camden Yards. The Mets in particular have come up a lot as potential suitors here. And I’ve also seen some people who have responded negatively to such suggestions, which I get.
I think that the number of teams tanking in recent years has been an issue, and the Orioles have often been a target of those criticisms. As I’ve said here before, in the wake of the Cubs and Astros’ mid-2010s success, I think teams became a little too reliant on vague gestures at the concept of rebuilding as a substitute for an actual plan.
I even mentioned in the third part of that comparison to the Astros that I think the Brewers strategy of retooling rather than rebuilding was a big part of why they’ve been competitive the last few years. Whether it was too many teams going all-in at once, or too many teams deciding to rebuild while also not being able to draft or develop talent and erroneously hoping for high draft picks to carry them through… I’m not sure that I can do a full study on this, and even if I can, I’m certainly not prepared to do one today.
However, in fairness, it’s probably worth noting that rebuilding in that period also wasn’t a guaranteed waste, either. For instance, back before the 2018 season, I also noted that there might be too many teams trying to rebuild. I even called out some teams that I thought tore it all down too soon, and while my Marlins prediction was pretty spot-on, another team that I mentioned was the Braves, who of course won a World Series four seasons later. The Braves spent the middle of the decade sending away stars like Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, and Shelby Miller. That’s probably more talent than the fire-sale versions of the Cubs and Astros gave up… but how much can you argue with those results?
Honestly, that’s probably also a bigger question, better suited to another day. My larger point is that, for as much as people like to talk about broad “rebuilding” or “tanking” or “going for it” strategies, these are still ultimately very broad frameworks more than anything else. The specifics matter much more than the broad direction. Maybe your rebuild gets you all the way, like the Astros and Cubs and Braves, but maybe you end up spinning your wheels for years, like the recent Phillies or Tigers or Marlins. And conversely, maybe holding on with a just-above average team or doing some retooling works, like with the 2019 Nationals or 2013 Red Sox (or the 2021 Braves at the deadline, given their issues)... but maybe you end up looking like the Rockies or Reds or early 2010s Phillies, stubbornly shuffling the deckchairs on a sinking ship as things get worse. Broad, overarching descriptions only get us so far in evaluation.
So to tie this big thread back to the start, what does this mean for Trey Mancini? Ultimately… I find it difficult to make any overarching proclamations about what it would “mean” for the 2022 Orioles, absent specifics. The Orioles are, at the moment, a fringe contender for the postseason at best; Fangraphs has them at 2.5% chance to make the playoffs right now. Maybe you think that’s low, but I don’t know that I’d put the odds that much higher.
Are those odds worse without Mancini? Probably. He is, at present, their third-best hitter by wRC+, with a 114 mark. But at the same time, that’s hardly irreplaceable, especially for a DH like Mancini (in fact, it places him fourteenth in wRC+ among qualified DHs, with several of the names above and around him carrying more positional versatility). Fangraphs also has him just sixth in WAR among the team’s position players. This team has very real holes in other spots (especially pitching, given the current roster, John Means’ Tommy John surgery, and their farm system’s lean towards hitters), many of which will still exist come 2023 and beyond, and there are plenty of prospects who could take his spot in the short term and try to prove their worth. Mancini, meanwhile, is in his final year before free agency (meaning even if you trade him, there’s nothing keeping him from returning next year anyway). And based on early signs, like the Luis Castillo trade, this might well be a sellers market.
But this also strikes me as the type of move that doesn’t have to happen, either. Maybe an abundance of OF/DH types drives down his value. Maybe everyone looking at him finds their answer elsewhere. I still think that the Orioles should be focusing on 2023 primarily, but there’s no harm in keeping all of your chips and trying for 2022 as well. We’ll see the types of returns players like Josh Bell and Joey Gallo and J.D. Martinez get, if they move; if those players return majors-ready pitching and Mancini stays in Baltimore, it might feel like a loss. The Diamondbacks and Royals returns for David Peralta and Andrew Benintendi don’t look overwhelming right now, but they also don’t look like nothing.
Which is to say, I’m not sure that a general decision to trade Mancini or not trade him makes the difference here. It’d be one thing if they were discussing moving players signed through 2023 and beyond, but for the most part, I’ve only seen Mancini’s name in rumor columns. So in practice, we’re talking about single-digit changes in third Wild Card odds in 2022 versus the potential 2023-and-beyond value of hypothetical trade packages; both sides of this discussion at this point seem too rooted in the theoretical to fairly compare. The specifics, as well as things like the Orioles’ prospect development, will make all of the difference (which is something we’ve again seen with the Astros or Braves, where their ability to convert prospects into quality major leaguers or needed trade returns remains superb).
If there’s a reason to criticize the broader direction of the Baltimore front office, I maintain that the most recent offseason was still the bigger issue. The lack of longer-term signings, the small number of pick-ups for 2022, the abysmal results of all of those signings (outside of Jordan Lyles)... I don’t know that any of those would have made the 2022 O’s into much more serious contenders, but I think they say more in the abstract than whatever the team decides to do with Mancini, given their relative lack of an involved tradeoff.
Editor’s Note 2: Okay, so let’s deal with the specifics of the actual Trey Mancini deal now. Mancini went to Houston as part of a three-way trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. In return, Baltimore got a pair of pitchers, Seth Johnson from the Rays and Chayce McDermott from the Astros.
Prospect analysis isn’t really my forte, so I’m relying on the scouting reports of other people. But I was right on their potential focus on pitchers. And Johnson *is* technically major league ready… except that he *also* needs Tommy John surgery. Of course, that twist is probably why he was available, as most sources that I see rate him as a top 100 prospect, and generally the second-best pitcher in Tampa’s strong system. And most reports on McDermott seem to see him as a lower-ceiling, higher-upside type if his current issues can be worked out. I think if it were one or the other, this would seem questionable, but both of them seem like a fine return for half a season of a good DH, and it doesn't seem to indicate that this was Mike Elias and company panicking and taking what they could get.
And like… one game isn’t a guaranteed sign of anything, but the offense seemed fine in their post-Mancini debut, bashing the Rangers 7-2 in Arlington. And some other fun notes, Dan Szymborski at Fangraphs agrees that the impact on the Orioles’ playoff chances are fairly minimal… and at least partially offset by the Yankees acquiring Frankie Montas and Lou Trivino within minutes of the Mancini trade, because the Orioles have only 3 more games against the best record in the majors, fewer than every other AL Wild Card contender outside of the Guardians and White Sox.
I suppose the team could still decide to sell off more players in the remaining sixteen hours, and that would be a lot more depressing. But for now, the Baltimore Orioles tag over at MLBTradeRumors remains rather sparse outside of Mancini updates.