December 1, 2022

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Like All Trades

Surprising Orioles make it harder for GM Mike Elias to stay the talent-building course

There are such strange winds blowing around Camden Yards right now.

The Orioles are one of the majors’ biggest surprises. They have some young and exciting players mixed with some veterans who know how to play the game. They can come back and win a slugfest and they can hang onto a one-run lead in the late innings.

They are becoming relevant — or at least more relevant — in the minds of casual Baltimore sports fans again. Win or lose, they’re fun to watch.

“We play loose. We have a really good clubhouse. Our guys get along. Our dugout’s got energy,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said Friday. “And I think if those things change, for whatever reason, then I think then you need to address it. But right now, I think there’s a really good feel in the dugout and the clubhouse, and I just kind of want to keep it going.”

These Orioles (41-44) extended their season-best win streak to six Friday night by scoring three runs on four consecutive hits with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Los Angeles Angels, 5-4. It was another thrilling game for a club that just keeps finding ways to win.

Still, they remain in last place in the American League East. They aren’t making the playoffs unless they continue this scalding hot streak for much longer and several other teams falter, including one of the following three division rivals: the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.

The Orioles are currently at a crossroads of hope and reality. It’s a much better intersection than reality and despair, where they’ve resided, for the most part, since Ubaldo Jiménez walked off the Rogers Centre mound in 2016.

Following hope in 2022 most likely will result in a dead end this season. And, potentially worse, could lead to several steps backward for this rebuilding effort.

So, the logical thing for general manager Mike Elias to do is to continue what he started in 2018, and trade viable commodities by the Aug. 2 deadline for more future pieces, assuming those avenues are available.

That means, as painful as it may be, potentially dealing inspirational leader Trey Mancini, as well as Rougned Odor, Jordan Lyles, Anthony Santander and Jorge López, if the return meets Elias’ requirements. That means potentially breaking up a really entertaining group of 26.

None of the players listed above is under team control heading into the 2025 season. Mancini and Odor are free agents at the end of this year and Lyles can be too if the Orioles don’t pick up his $11 million option. Santander and López can’t be free agents until after the 2024 season.

Regardless, this is the common mantra of losing teams: If good players can’t help you win now, turn them into players who can in the future.

“I think everybody’s aware of the business of the game and everybody’s aware that players move, and organizations make moves to benefit them currently and in the future. And those are decisions that we have no control over,” Hyde said. “So, we’re gonna control what we can. I want our guys to show up and get ready to play. And whatever happens, happens. I think that we do have that mindset in there. I don’t sense any sort of ‘what if.’”

I’ll provide a “what if,” though.

What if the Orioles keep up their recent strong play and are within a handful of games of the last AL wild-card spot at the end of this month?

Should that change things? Should they, gulp, add players and trade away some prospects?

My answers: Probably not and definitely no.

Here’s another one: What if the midsummer departure of guys such as Mancini, Odor and other veterans disrupts the clubhouse camaraderie that has been formed this year? Is it worth that risk to get a couple of lottery tickets?

I really don’t know the answer. It does seem risky, though, to pull the rug out from under a team that’s starting to believe in itself.

Ask anyone in that clubhouse, and they’ll tell you how close this team is. They’ll also tell you this club now thinks it can win every night. So, it’s not a great message from management to say, “We’re gonna take away a few productive players to build for the future. Thanks for the effort, but we aren’t as concerned about winning now.”

It’s also a terrible message to send to fans whose interest is just starting to be piqued again. “Do you love how they’ve been winning? Well, it’s not quite time for that. Hold on a little longer.”

I think nearly everyone — fans, management, media — agrees the Orioles shouldn’t trade any of these guys simply for the sake of making a trade. Even Mancini, who has not been offered an extension and, therefore, almost certainly will not be returning, should be kept if the Orioles can’t get what Elias deems to be a legitimate return. It’s clear Mancini provides value for this club even if it remains in the AL East basement.

Yes, it really is an odd time at Camden Yards, where 27,814 showed up Friday for floppy hat night, fireworks and Orioles baseball, in some order. They were energetic, engaged and loud throughout the night. It was excellent to witness.

I didn’t think we’d be at this spot for a few more years. The moment when a club must decide whether it’s playing for now or the future. Whether it should break up parts of a roster or keep it together, maintain that camaraderie and see what happens.

The Orioles certainly will alienate some fans if they trade Mancini, López and others. But that can’t be a major consideration. Elias has stuck with his plan and has not let fan emotion enter the equation. And this organization is better. Clearly.

But it’s not good enough. It just isn’t. Getting close to .500 and sniffing around a wild-card berth can lead to complacency. This is just part of the climb.

That, I guess, is what makes these next few weeks so intriguing. Make the right move or two and the Orioles are set up better for the future. Make the wrong move or two and tick off fans and jeopardize the mojo that’s been created.

Elias certainly doesn’t want to crush this feel-good vibe by putting a lesser product on the field for the final two months. But, again, 2022 is not the destination.

“We are all professionals, and we understand the nature and the business of the game. And, right now, we’re in last place in our division. And someday, we’ll be first place in the division,” Hyde said. “But, right now, it’s one foot ahead of the other. And we’ll see what happens.”

(Photo: Julio Cortez / Associated Press)