The Orioles have to balance an ongoing rebuild with a major league roster that suddenly looks competitive

Being an Orioles fan hasn’t been this fun in quite some time. The team is in the midst of a league-best winning streak, has a .500 record within sight, and has somehow clawed their way back into the playoff picture, sitting just two games out of the final AL Wild Card spot. These are the good times. So why can’t some people stop talking about dismantling this team?

Just a few weeks ago I wrote about how the Orioles could still “buy” at the deadline even if they weren’t contenders. Forgive me, this was a pre-winning streak, and I did not foresee the Orioles’ impending dominance. At that time, I was pushing for the Orioles to target pitchers with years of control while willing to admit that trading away Trey Mancini and a high-performing bullpen arm made a lot of sense. After all, the O’s were well outside the playoff discussion at that point, and it represented an opportunity to get something for an expiring contract and sell-high on a variable relief arm.

But it’s impossible to deny that circumstances have changed. Their chances at the playoffs may still be relatively slim (FanGraphs gives the Orioles 1.3% odds to make the postseason), but they exist. And considering the team has a 36-30 record since May 1, it has been more than just one hot week of baseball. These guys may actually be pretty good.

That information did not sway Jim Bowden at The Athletic, who put together an article this week on potential trades. He mentions the Orioles twice, first sending both Jorge López and Félix Bautista to the Twins in exchange for pitching prospect Simeon Woods Richardson, and then Trey Mancini to the Mets for two pitching prospects, Dominic Hamel and Calvin Ziegler.

MLB Trade Rumors compiled their list of the top 50 trade candidates, and it includes six Orioles: Mancini, López, Jordan Lyles, Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, and Cedric Mullins. However, they do admit that it would take a massive haul for the O’s to consider a Hays or Mullins swap.

The trade deadline is still three weeks away, so there is time for the narrative to shift again. But if the Orioles continue to pound on the playoff door, it would be tough to reconcile with another significant sale at the deadline.

In particular it would be difficult to deal with a Mancini trade that, as MLBTR notes, “won’t be well-received in the clubhouse” and “the return will probably underwhelm fans,” although the package proposed by Bowden of two pitchers from the top three rounds in last year’s draft is at least intriguing. Even still, it brings into question why the Orioles would even do it if there is a chance at holding onto your face of the franchise and having a fun September instead.

It’s a similar line of thinking in regards to a move involving any of the non-outfielders that could be on the block. Players like Lyles would seem to provide a very useful skillset to the Orioles while possessing modest trade value, and relievers like López or Dillon Tate are players with years of control and relatively limited track records of success. Would the potential return credibly fill the organizational hole they left behind?

As for the outfielders, Mullins and Hays seem like pieces to build around rather than sell off for parts. They are young enough and under team control for long enough that they should be key cogs in a competitive Orioles team as soon as next season. Santander has one fewer season of team control and is arguably the most replaceable member of the outfield with Kyle Stowers waiting in the wings. But trading any one of them now versus during the offseason wouldn’t seem to impact their value in any significant way and would instead serve to disrupt an established chemistry.

Elias didn’t really hint one or the other when speaking with the media this weekend, only saying that the team makes moves with the consideration that it “is the right thing to do for the health of the Orioles franchise.” That sounds like a warm way of saying that just about any player is available for the right price, which makes sense even if the biased fan inside of me secretly wants Mancini to be given a lifetime contract to stay with the club.

Don’t misunderstand, this roster has obvious holes, particularly on the infield and in the starting rotation. And given the overall landscape of where the Orioles exist relative to some of the juggernauts in the league, it wouldn’t make any sense for them to sell the farm and go “all in” on this roster either. Maybe they could bottle some magic to sneak in as a wild card, but a deep playoff run seems close to impossible. The end goal of the Elias-led rebuild was to construct a World Series contender and a “pipeline” of minor league talent. While they seem to have achieved the latter, the former is still down the road a bit.

At the same time, it’s not unrealistic to think that the 2022 Orioles are not in their final form just yet. If recent performances are any indication, DL Hall, Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, and Terryn Vavra could be in Baltimore within the month. There is a chance that Grayson Rodriguez returns to the mound before the season is out. Of course, this is no reason for the Orioles to rush any of them, but if the front office believes a quick stint in the bigs is beneficial ahead of a full debut in 2023, then so be it. That experience would be amplified if it came in games that held some weight down the stretch.

It’s a balancing act that Elias and his front office have to handle. They have to determine what route they deem the most “valuable.” They can dive into the trade market, unload a veteran or two, and add a marginal amount of talent to the organization, or they can hold steady and give this roster a chance to show what they can do. Neither way would seem to impact the future of the organization to any significant degree, and one is a whole lot more fun than the other.

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