NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland – The Orioles and Washington Nationals are the two major league teams closest to the location of this year’s Winter Meetings.
But Wednesday’s developments showed that these two franchises are worlds apart.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter talked Wednesday about the club’s hope of acquiring a right fielder and a catcher.
They are looking, but the cost — in either free-agent dollars or tradeable assets — has been prohibitive. They’re still optimistic that something will get done, and the Orioles remain interested in catchers Welington Castillo, Nick Hundley and Matt Wieters and outfielders Michael Saunders, Angel Pagan and Michael Bourn, among others.
Meanwhile, Nationals president Mike Rizzo and manager Dusty Baker were on the dais Wednesday evening answering questions about the blockbuster they had just made with the Chicago White Sox: Acquiring 28-year-old outfielder Adam Eaton for three heralded pitching prospects.
They made the Eaton move after they couldn’t quite land superstar lefty Chris Sale from the White Sox on Tuesday.
Instead, Washington had to “settle” for Eaton, a left-handed, leadoff hitter with excellent defensive and on-base capabilities and a team-friendly contract that can keep him with the Nats through the next five seasons for a total of $38.4 million.
Or, in other words, the absolute, perfect fit for the Orioles. Seriously. Perfect.
If Duquette had a personal genie and was granted one wish, Eaton might come spiraling out of the bottle.
So, how does that happen? How does your geographic rival trade for a player who checks each of the Orioles’ major-need boxes?
It’s pretty simple, really.
The Nationals have drafted and developed high-ceiling prospects consistently and the Orioles have drafted and developed mostly role players. There are exceptions to both statements, but that’s at the center of this issue.
The common belief is that the Nats have a huge payroll and the Orioles have a small one. The truth is, according to spotrac.com, the Nationals’ 2016 payroll was $163.6 million (10th of 30 teams) and the Orioles was $157.9 million (12th of 30).
In the past five years, both clubs have made the playoffs three times; the Orioles have six postseason victories and the Nats have five. The Orioles have made one league championship series and Nats have never gotten past the NLDS.
So, you can make a valid argument that Duquette and his bargain-hunting philosophy has been more effective than Rizzo and his big-game expeditions.
That argument fizzles some when you look at the two farm systems.
Heading into 2016, the Orioles’ prospects were ranked 27th by Baseball America; the Nats’ were ranked fifth. Washington’s Top 5 included Trea Turner, the runner-up for 2016 NL Rookie of the Year, and Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, two of the three prospects dealt in the Eaton trade. (The other was Dane Dunning, the Nats’ 2016 first-rounder.)
The Orioles’ Top 5 prospects in 2016 included Dylan Bundy, who had been ranked as the franchise’s top minor leaguer four times; Hunter Harvey, who will miss all off 2017 after elbow surgery; and Mychal Givens, a converted shortstop who has been a key reliever for the Orioles but is already 26.
The best returning Nats’ prospect is outfielder Victor Robles, who is widely considered one of baseball’s best minor league players. The Orioles’ top returning prospect is catcher Chance Sisco, who has a great bat, but has defensive questions to answer before he’s considered a can’t-miss big leaguer.
To be fair, the Orioles’ system is better than it was.
To be fair, the Orioles have used some minor leaguers in trades to acquire some supplemental pieces in pennant races.
To be fair, they have drafted and developed a core of Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Wieters, Kevin Gausman and Givens, among others.
But a good farm system is more than just hitting on a few high draft picks. It’s developing the occasional Top 10 rounders into usable pieces or heralded prospects.
And it’s finding international amateurs in places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, smoothing off the rough edges and turning them into quality ballplayers.
Want to know how many amateurs originally signed by the Orioles from those two baseball-rich countries that are currently on the club’s 40-man roster?
Want to know how many players that the Orioles have signed as amateurs from Venezuela that have played for the big-league team in franchise history?
Want to know how many players originally signed by the Orioles from any country besides the U.S. are on the current 40-man roster?
Three: Jonathan Schoop from Curacao, Hyun Soo Kim from Korea and Dariel Alvarez from Cuba. And the latter two were pros in their home countries before coming to the U.S.
The Orioles’ international success has been pretty darn awful for decades. Part of it is because they don’t spend a lot of money on individual players in the Dominican; it’s a philosophical decision to sidestep such a high-risk venture. It’s not unwise. But they still have to hit on the occasional, low-budget Dominican amateur to help build the system.
Consider this: The Nationals spent a whopping $17,000 in 2012 on Lopez – and Wednesday he was a key component in landing Eaton.
Ultimately, Duquette and Showalter have done an admirable job in righting this ship and making the Orioles a division contender each of the past five seasons.
But they’ve also handcuffed themselves in various ways over the years, and none is more evident than the lack of consistent, quality minor leaguers in their system.
And that was never more evident than Wednesday, when the Nationals were in a winter meetings’ ballroom celebrating the acquisition of Eaton while the Orioles were hunkered down in a hotel room poring over ways to buy or trade for an older, more expensive and less-talented outfielder than Eaton.