This early Orioles’ season had been eerily devoid of minor roster moves, so much so that you knew the inevitable was looming like the villain in a horror movie. You half expected to see Dan Duquette in a hockey mask brandishing his cell phone in the corner of the Orioles dugout.
So the carnage finally happened Monday night – technically an off day for the Orioles.
Duquette traded struggling left-hander Brian Matusz, the remaining $2.84 million on his 2016 contract and a 2016 competitive balance draft pick, the 76th overall this June, to the Atlanta Braves for two minor league pitchers. Immediately demonstrating their incentive was to buy the pick, the Braves designated Matusz for assignment shortly after the trade was announced.
Neither right-hander Brandon Barker nor lefty Trevor Belicek are top prospects; neither was listed by Baseball America in the top 30 of the Braves’ system. But they are both just 23 and have had pretty impressive pro careers so far.
Duquette wasn’t done Monday. He sent two international signing bonus slots to the Cincinnati Reds for right-hander Franderlin Romero, who was 1-4 with a 2.87 ERA at Single-A Dayton this year. He wasn’t among the Top 30 in the Reds’ system, according to Baseball America. In addition to those moves Monday, the Orioles made it official that they had agreed to terms with lefty reliever Brian Duensing, 33, on a minor league deal.
Once the dust settled and Duquette had acquired three young arms for the system, he issued this statement: “With today’s moves, we have added to the pitching depth of our organization. The pitchers we have acquired today are very competitive and have very good instincts. They have excellent control, keep the ball in the ballpark, and consistently keep the ball over the plate. Not only have we stocked the pitching in our farm system, but we also added three potential major leaguers. We’d all like to thank Brian (Matusz) for his contributions to our team, both on the field and in our community.”
Frankly, I have no idea if the three young pitchers are going to be major leaguers one day; obviously that’s where the value in these moves are. And there’s no way to tell at this point.
Consider these two recent scenarios:
The Orioles did a similar salary dump/trade with reliever Ryan Webb to the Los Angeles Dodgers last April and the two minor leaguers the Orioles received are non-factors (one is out of the organization, the other appears to be minor league depth only) while the Dodgers used the supplemental pick they acquired to select a pitcher who is currently listed as the 17th overall prospect in their deep system.
But the Orioles also sent two international signing bonuses to the Houston Astros last May for a minor league pitcher who wasn’t in the Astros’ Top 30. That player, Chris Lee, is now considered the top left-hander in the Orioles’ system, ranked sixth overall on the Orioles’ farm by Baseball America.
So let’s analyze Monday’s transactions on what we know for sure.
The Orioles just shed nearly $3 million of Matusz’s contract; they also gave up a pick between the second and third rounds, which had a slot value of $838,900, according to Baseball America. The Orioles lose that amount from their draft pool (which is now about $6,65 million; they also dropped another $3 million or so when they forfeited their top pick, 14th overall, in order to sign Yovani Gallardo).
The international bonus slots sent to the Reds were worth about $700,000, according to a source, similar to the $655,800 in bonus slots dealt to Houston for Lee in 2015.
So the Orioles just clipped $3 million off their current payroll and roughly $1.5 million or so they could have used on their farm system this year to acquire three minor leaguers.
And the skeptics roar. How can the Orioles afford to drop money that could have gone to their farm system, which Baseball America ranked 27th of 30 at the beginning of the year?
That answer could be very simple: That money may go to the big league team this July for reinforcements needed for a pennant push.
Go back to that maligned minor league system again. It may not contain enough for the Orioles to add the right piece or pieces in July. In those types of deals, one thing the contending team must do, if it can’t wow a seller with prospects, is add payroll.
For all Orioles’ fans complaints about the organization not spending over the years, heading into this week the club had the 10th highest payroll in the majors at a franchise record $147 million. Dumping Matusz’s salary dropped them to 12th at $144.2 million, according to spotrac.com.
The Orioles are still slightly outspending the 2015 AL East champ Toronto Blue Jays and the 2015 World Series participants, the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets.
And we all know Duquette is going to make a move or two in July and August; he does it just about every year.
This also opens up a spot for a pitcher who has paid his dues in the minors, lefty Ashur Tolliver, to show what he can do in the majors while cutting bait with Matusz, a former first-rounder and the club’s 2015 Roberto Clemente Award recipient who simply did not show glimmers of his old self on the mound this year.
It’s hard to call it simply a salary dump when Matusz had compiled a 12.00 ERA and wasn’t retiring left-handed hitters, his primary job.
So these moves Monday, theoretically anyway, provide a little financial cushion for the near future. The Orioles still have four picks in the top 100 this year and they almost never spend big money on international free agents anyway because the organizational philosophy is that the payoff with raw, international amateurs often doesn’t meet the huge expenditures. They tend to nibble in that market instead, rarely paying over six figures for one player.
Trying to explain all of this will leave me open to critics who argue that the Orioles shouldn’t mortgage their future by giving up draft picks or international money for unheralded minor leaguers and more financial flexibility.
I guess my answer to that is let’s wait for July and October, and see whether these moves have any bearing on the success of this team. And we may want to wait a little longer to see what the Orioles truly gave up and what they received.
In the end, Monday’s flurry may have no bearing whatsoever on this team in 2016 or beyond. But the guy in the hockey mask and cellphone in his hand likely isn’t done either.