For the rebuilding Orioles, 2019 is expected to be a season of change, as first-year executive vice president Mike Elias attempts to reshape the roster and increase the talent level throughout the organization.
Part of that change involves making trades. Casting off veterans in exchange for minor league talent is a tried-and-true method for building a future contender. It worked to great effect for Elias’ previous employer, the Houston Astros, when general manager Jeff Luhnow pulled off a slew of deals after his hiring in December 2011, stockpiling prospects who became the core of the 2017 World Series championship club.
Will Elias follow a similar path for the Orioles this season? Well, it might be a more challenging task than initially thought. Many of the Orioles’ most marketable veterans have damaged their value with ineffective or injury-plagued seasons in 2019.
The most obvious example is relief pitcher Mychal Givens.
Coming into the season, Givens figured to be the Orioles’ most valuable trade commodity. He entered 2019 with a career 3.12 ERA and 10.4 strikeout rate, and showed in the final months of 2018 that he could handle the closer’s role, converting nine of 11 save attempts after taking over the job. With three years of team control remaining, the 29-year-old Givens probably could have fetched a quality prospect or two from a contending club looking for bullpen help.
Two months into the season, though, Givens’ stock has plummeted.
His meltdown against the Rockies on Sunday — in which he walked the first two batters he faced to force in the tying run, then allowed a game-ending sacrifice fly — was his latest implosion in a week full of them. Givens lost the first game of the Colorado series Friday night, giving up a walkoff two-run homer to Trevor Story. The previous day, he walked home the go-ahead run against the New York Yankees in the ninth after the Orioles had rallied to tie in the eighth. And the outing before that, Givens was called to protect a two-run lead and allowed five runs in 1 1/3 innings to the Yankees.
Givens has a 24.00 ERA in his last four outings, suffering two blown saves and three losses in those games. Most alarmingly, his control has abandoned him; he’s walked six batters in his last three innings. All told, Givens’ ERA now sits at 5.56 for the season, and he’s converted only four of his seven save opportunities. His 5.2 walks per nine innings’ rate is a career worst.
That’s not necessarily going to send potential trade partners streaming for the exits. Givens has a mostly successful track record in the majors and still has dynamic stuff. But his recent struggles may be enough to give teams pause when pondering a trade — and certainly could lessen the return package they offer in any proposed deal.
Givens isn’t the only Oriole whose value may be less than it once was.
On the starting pitching side, the Orioles were expected to shop veterans Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner. Cobb, who sparkled with a 2.56 ERA in 11 games in the second half of 2018, might have generated some trade interest if he’d been able to build on that momentum to start this year. The Orioles potentially could have extracted a decent prospect from another team, especially if they were willing to pick up part of the remaining $43 million on Cobb’s contract.
That’s no longer a possibility in the near future. Cobb has as many trips to the injured list as games pitched this season (three), going 0-2 with a 10.95 ERA before most recently returning to the shelf with a lumbar strain April 28. Last week, Cobb was transferred to the 60-day IL, and he doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to returning.
Cashner, meanwhile, has enjoyed a bounceback in 2019, going 5-2 with a 4.55 ERA after struggling last season (4-15, 5.29). His strikeout rate (7.3) is his best since 2016, and his walk rate (3.0) his best since 2014. It wouldn’t be surprising to see teams kick the tires on Cashner, an established starter and strong clubhouse presence.
But there might be a complication. In an interview with The Athletic’s Dan Connolly, Cashner said that he’s very comfortable in Baltimore — and might consider walking away from the game if he were traded to a new team.
Cashner can’t veto a trade, but interested clubs might take Cashner’s words into consideration. That can’t help the Orioles’ bargaining position in trade talks.
A couple other veteran Orioles, Richard Bleier and Mark Trumbo, have been torpedoed by injuries, damaging any modest trade value they might have had. The 32-year-old Bleier was a stalwart performer in the Baltimore bullpen two years in a row, posting sub-2.00 ERAs in both 2017 and 2018, but he holds a 9.28 mark in 2019. Bleier has made just nine appearances, spending more than a month on the IL with left shoulder tendinitis.
Trumbo hasn’t played at all this season while recovering from right knee surgery last September. Trumbo will be starting a rehab assignment soon, and the best hope for the Orioles is that he’ll hit well upon his return, intriguing a contender in need of power. Still, one-dimensional players like Trumbo generally don’t garner a ton of interest on the trade market. Plus, his injury troubles the last two seasons, following a subpar 2017 campaign, won’t have teams lining up for his services.
That’s not to say there aren’t any tradable assets on the Orioles. Trey Mancini has put himself back on the radar screen by batting .307 with a .908 OPS, 10 home runs and 26 RBIs. He’s demonstrated that he can do more than just hit home runs, and the Orioles could receive plenty of calls on the 27-year-old. It remains to be seen whether Elias would pull the trigger on a trade that would send one of the club’s best and most recognizable players out of Baltimore. The front office has plenty of time to make a decision on Mancini, who isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season.
Similarly, the 26-year-old Dylan Bundy, under team control through 2021, is a potential trade target if his recent improvement continues. Bundy has a 2.28 ERA in four starts in May after a rough April showing (6.67). While Bundy, a former No. 4 overall pick, probably won’t reach the ace status he was once projected for, there’s enough life in his arm to intrigue teams in need of rotation help.
Perhaps the most likely player to end the season with another team is Jonathan Villar, who, after a slow start, has raised his offensive numbers to a solid level. After a 2-for-4 performance Sunday, Villar is batting .256 with a .723 OPS, almost exactly matching his career numbers. He’s also 9-for-11 in stolen base attempts. He could contribute to a contender with his bat and his speed, although he’s struggled defensively while splitting time between second base and shortstop.
It’s a safe bet that the Orioles will swing at least one deal before the July 31 deadline; it’d be surprising if Elias completely stood pat. Still, for fans hoping the club will trade away a number of veterans for prospects this year, as they did a year ago, you may be disappointed. The Orioles simply don’t have many valuable commodities to sell.