The Baltimore Orioles are in a precarious position heading into 2017 and beyond. They share a division with perennial heavyweights Boston and New York, both of which show no signs of weakening anytime soon. They have overachieved in the past few seasons, beating their pythagorean (expected) record by an average of 8 wins over the past 5 seasons, headlined by a 12 win overperformance in 2012. The Orioles’ impressive heroics have been largely due to the emergence of several former top prospects. Headlining the list is superstar 3B Manny Machado who is due to hit free agency following the 2018 season. It’s almost a certainty at this point that Machado will seek greener pastures elsewhere. The Orioles are not a team known for spending big money, and Machado is almost certain to command somewhere in the ballpark of $25 million per year as a free agent if he keeps up his MVP-level production for the next two seasons.
Compounding the difficult near future in Baltimore is the relative weakness of the team’s minor league system. Keith Law of ESPN ranks Baltimore’s farm 25th in MLB. Not entirely surprising when the team only has one legitimate prospect left in the system (Chance Sisco) after several years of graduating major league players like Machado, Matt Wieters, Jonathan Schoop, and Zach Britton. So what happens when the Orioles inevitably stop overperforming? Machado is the only asset on the team that would bring in enough of a trade return to start revitalizing the Orioles’ depleted farm, and it just so happens that the team with Law’s 1st ranked farm system has a Bartolo Colon-sized hole at third base.
Could Manny Machado land in Atlanta in 2019? It’s certainly possible, but there are a few obstacles to overcome:
First, the Orioles have to begin playing up (down?) to their potential. Fangraphs projects the Orioles to win just 78 games in 2017, a number that would place them far from contention and would force some uncomfortable discussions in the Baltimore front office. If it’s clear at the end of next season (or the middle of the 2018 season) that the Orioles have dropped out of the field of legitimate contenders and the front office decides that a rebuild is necessary, the first man out the door is likely to be the 24-year old third baseman who’s put up MVP-like numbers in the past two seasons.
Second, the Braves would need to have enough valuable pieces to entice Baltimore to deal. This shouldn’t be a problem. Based on projections from around the baseball world, Atlanta could have anywhere from 8-11 prospects in the MLB Top 100 Prospects list this year, with at least half a dozen more in the next hundred. The Braves have by far the deepest system of minor league talent in the majors, and GM John Coppolella has shown a willingness to made a big trade if the right deal comes along.
Finally, Atlanta would have to be willing and able to sign Machado to a long-term contract. The front office would not give up the amount of talent required to get Machado just to have him in Atlanta for a year at most. There is no question that Manny Machado is one of the elite players in baseball right now, and will hit free agency at just 26 years old. The reigning World Series Champion Chicago Cubs gave 27-year old Jason Heyward an 8 year, $184 million contract last offseason. Machado will almost certainly command more than that and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him cash in to the tune of $25 million per year at minimum. If things go as planned for the Braves, their realistic window of competition should just be starting heading into the 2019 season and would be on the backs of a glut of young players on team friendly contracts and in the early stages of arbitration. Baseball Reference projects the Braves’ payroll at just $96 million for the 2019 season and with Matt Kemp’s gargantuan contract dropping off the books in 2020, Atlanta certainly has the payroll space to make a legitimate run at being the long-term home of Manny Machado. Corporate owners Liberty Media have already publicly stated that they plan to aggressively increase the team’s payroll between now and 2020 and a young superstar at a position of need could be just what they had in mind for the extra money.
It would take a lot of ifs and buts for arguably the best 3B in the majors to end up wearing a Braves uniform, but it’s not nearly as unlikely as it may seem at first glance. If all goes well, the NL East could be looking at a Braves team with superstars Machado and Freddie Freeman at the corners of the infield while stud prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies patrol the middle. It’s a great time to be a Braves fan.