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MLB

The Orioles Twist The Knife

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Out of all the sad trades in one of the sadder trade deadlines in recent memory, Trey Mancini being sent from the Orioles to the Astros for a guy who needs Tommy John surgery might just top the list. A trudge through an Orioles beat reporter’s Twitter is like wading into the swamp of misery—Ryan Mountcastle can’t stop expressing how much “it sucks” to see Mancini gone; Anthony Santander can only hug a signed Mancini jersey left in his locker. Mancini, for a guy who went from the Orioles to a World Series contender, doesn’t exactly look overjoyed.

Geez. Mancini—and the Orioles’ behavior as sellers at the trade deadline this year—serves as a clear enough example of the fact that team loyalty only ever plays out in one direction. In every single year of Mancini’s tenure as an Oriole, the Orioles have sucked, and despite being mandated by team ownership to lose, Mancini has been a mainstay. The heart of the team, if you want to use the sentimental language of team loyalty that Mancini embodies, from the way that his teammates talk about him to how he fought colon cancer during his tenure and came back a year later. Out of all the things Mancini said about leaving the Orioles, his comments about the training staff who helped him are the most heart-wrenching. “These are guys who I credit with saving my life two years ago,” Mancini said.

And now that the Orioles have been injected with the lifeblood of Adley Rutschman and might just have a shot at making the playoffs, 2.5 games out of a wild card spot, on pace for their first winning season since 2016, and not even dramatically over-performing their Pythagorean winning percentage of .498—now that the Orioles have a shot at joy, it’s time for Mike Elias to bar Mancini from being a part of the promised upswing that he helped initiate from a losing team. The rewards are for future Orioles, not the guy who gave his prime, productive years to an organization that couldn’t have been less thankful to receive them. Instead the spoils will go to pitching prospects like Seth Johnson, who is set to undergo Tommy John surgery, and Chayce McDermott, or some of the four pitching prospects that the Orioles got by trading their all-star closer Jorge López half a day later.

Here’s what Elias has to say:

There is always going to be an emotional gap between ownership and fans, unless fans become fully Process-pilled, which Orioles fans honestly seem well on their way to becoming. But this isn’t a war between cold-blooded GM pragmatism and the over-sentimentality of fanbases, if just on the basis that the moves make little sense for a grand picture of a World Series ring—though Elias has apparently cobbled together a series of internal percentages comprehensible to him.

The fact that Elias has traded Mancini and López, an above-average bat and an all-star closer with two more arbitration years that he’s practically getting for free in exchange for pitching prospects who won’t touch MLB for some time, shows that he isn’t trading in a chance at a wild card game this year for an even better team next year, or the year after—he’s trading in for some hypothetical point of time in 2026 or beyond, where presumably things will be incrementally better after each trade deadline where he moves two steps backwards to go two steps forward. What is the win condition here? Where is the turning point that Elias sees in his five-year business plan that suggests these trades will bring the Orioles closer to a World Series? Is it a pitching arm he can deploy after another year or two of losing? The opportunity to develop some assets who he can flip for other assets who he could flip for other assets and at some point, some time, he will somehow have a World Series-ready team?

When Jorge López left the team, he was about as happy as Mancini was, which is to say he embodied the polar opposite sentiment of shouting, See you later, suckers! and flying off into the sunset. “It became more than a family. It’s a lot of tears because we worked so hard to get to this point,” López said. It says something about the pre-deadline Orioles team that the players on the team wanted to be there, or at least used to say something about them. Now that Mancini and López are gone, it’s hard to feel anything but sad.

MLB general managers seem to treat building a contending team as though there’s a discontinuity in the path from “bad team” to “World Series winner” that permits you to leapfrog the in-between stage of “just pretty good.” Never mind the fact that the Orioles have a shot at making the playoffs now. Giving your players the opportunity to play for wins that matter is treated as a worse option than having them lose games that flat-out don’t, even in a league that doesn’t have a draft lottery. God forbid you might play some meaningful baseball games in August. God forbid that you might even play in a wild card game at all and give fans anything to cheer for this season.

We’re biased to underdog stories, and no, those stories are not always pragmatic. They don’t always result in a World Series win. But for how long are fans expected to buy into misery before they’re allowed to hope for something different? You could lament both the Mancini and Lopez trades even if the return was significant, just for what they’ve meant to the Orioles these years, but there’s a whole lot of audacity in trying to excise the heart from your baseball team without improving it in the process.