LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The smell of stale salsa becomes familiar by the end of the winter meetings, one executive here said Monday. Over the four days of baseball’s annual summit, club officials gather in each suite, order room service, and pick at appetizers while they mull over conversations with other teams and agents.
If evaluators with the Orioles, Rays and Jays have time between nachos over the next 48 hours, they should go around the room and take turns offering opinions on this question: Do they believe they can contend against the newly Giancarlo'd Yankees or the defending division-champion Red Sox?
And if the consensus in those rooms is that their respective teams don’t have a legit shot at the playoffs, then they should sell -- every veteran player of any value.
The Orioles should have traded Manny Machado and Zach Britton before last season, and they’re willing to listen to offers for Machado and Britton now. The Rays should continue to talk to other teams about Chris Archer, Evan Longoria and Alex Colome, and follow through with the best prospect-driven deals they can find. The Jays should take Josh Donaldson and Marcus Stroman and seriously consider moving them -- maybe even to the Yankees.
Because the Yankees and the Red Sox are that good, that much better than the other teams in the division. As Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon and Buck Showalter and former Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi can all attest, inhabiting the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox is perhaps the greatest challenge in baseball, because even if Boston and New York are mismanaged to some degree, the disparity in resources can cover those mistakes.
But if the Yankees and Red Sox make sound decisions, well, the margin for error for the Jays, Orioles and Rays is minuscule and the chances of those three teams competing is remote. Right now, the Yankees are better positioned and probably more stocked than they have been since the dynasty of 1996-2001. The Yankees’ payroll is under control, they are loaded with young talent like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino, and they have tons of talent in their farm system, headlined by Gleyber Torres. The Red Sox have a strong core of young position players, ace Chris Sale and the cash flow to blow past the luxury-tax threshold in a way the Rays or Orioles cannot.
Tanking is an ugly word and executives only utter it on background or off the record, but the overwhelming perception in the industry is that the Cubs and Astros tanked to better position themselves for access to the best talent, and Chicago won the World Series in 2016 and Houston in 2017 -- and both teams will be good for a few more years as well. The rules have not been altered to combat tanking, and now that it’s a strategy proven to work, it's the best way for the Orioles, Rays and Jays to set themselves up for success down the road.
Machado is a free agent next fall and the most rational minds in the Orioles organization understand there's no chance he will re-sign, so Baltimore should prop open its suite door here and welcome other teams. What has been written here repeatedly in the past still stands: Trading Machado would give the Orioles their best chance at swapping for young pitching. The O’s should trade Britton and anybody else who has value as well. It still remains to be seen whether Baltimore actually can push big sell-off deals across the finish line, because it's something owner Peter Angelos has been loath to do in the past, out of a sense of obligation to ticket-buying fans. The Orioles would be more interesting to watch in 2018 if they keep Machado -- but clearly worse off for 2018 and beyond.
If the Orioles do trade Machado, then the Cardinals, Cubs and Rangers might all make sense as trade partners. St. Louis has young pitching to offer. The Cubs could deal Addison Russell as part of any package, to give the Orioles the young shortstop they need, and Machado, a cousin to outfielder Albert Almora Jr.), would undoubtedly be welcomed by a group of players hungry to build on their 2016 title. Heck, the Orioles should even keep an open mind about trading Machado to the Yankees -- New York needs a third baseman, after trading Chase Headley to San Diego -- and Baltimore could draw from New York’s robust farm system, while knowing Machado might sign out of the division after 2018.
The Rays are more reflexively conditioned for sell-offs, given their financial restrictions, and Archer -- guaranteed just $15.75 million for the next two seasons, with modest club options for 2020 and 2021 -- has tremendous value. Longoria is well-respected and coming off another good season, but at 32, he is owed $86 million for the next five seasons, and it might get even more difficult to deal him in years to come. This might be the Rays’ last and best shot to trade Longoria and get talent in return, while freeing themselves of his salary.
The Jays seem to be intent on trying to win at the outset of 2018, a nod to the 3.2 million fans who attended their games, and figure to hang onto Donaldson, Stroman and other marketable pieces through June. But if the Jays drift behind the Yankees and Red Sox, then the front office should go into sell mode.
As one GM said, “You get into this game to win.” But if that starts to feel impossible for the three unfortunates in the AL East, the prudent move is a strategic retreat from the Yankees and Red Sox, to reload and fight another day.