Manny Machado's Down Year, Rental Status Make Blockbuster Trade a Massive Risk

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 14, 2017

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 24:  Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles plays third base against the Tampa Bay Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 24, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
G Fiume/Getty Images

Manny Machado is on the block and teams are lining up to trade for him. Because what could go wrong with a deal for one of Major League Baseball's top superstars?

Plenty, actually.

A few days ago, it wasn't worth the mental energy to sit down and weigh the pros and cons of a Machado trade. He was a member of the Baltimore Orioles and all but guaranteed to stay that way for 2018.

But on Tuesday, the second day of the winter meetings, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the Orioles had gone from merely listening on Machado to actively shopping him. On Wednesday, Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com indicated that the Machado sweepstakes are heating up:

Per Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, "several" teams have already made offers for the three-time All-Star third baseman.

This is all perfectly sensible.

In the Orioles' immediate past is a last-place finish in the AL East. In their immediate future is a good deal of uncertainty. The New York Yankees added to the latter when they acquired reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton. The Orioles should be looking to cash in their best trade chip. And plenty of teams should be interested in bartering with them.

"I don't think it's that far down the track," Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations, said of the Machado trade talks to Rosenthal. "It's prudent to find out which way the wind is blowing."

Of course, all trades involving superstars are risky by default. This one is made even riskier by three realities:

  • Machado is set to earn $17.2 million via arbitration in 2018, per MLB Trade Rumors.
  • 2018 is also his final year before free agency.
  • He's coming off a down year.

Regarding that last point, the 25-year-old did well to crank 33 home runs but his OPS fell from .869 across 2015 and 2016—he was a top-five MVP finisher both years—to just .782 in 2017.

That number looks worse in the context of how Machado played half his games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an extreme hitter's park. Using OPS+ to adjust for that, Machado's OPS was just seven percent better than average. That tied for 75th among qualified hitters.

The bright side, such as it is, is that bad luck evidently played a role in Machado's struggles.

His walk (7.2 BB%) and strikeout (16.7 K%) rates stayed steady, and his hard-hit rate jumped to a career-best 39.5 percent. He may not have gotten many hits to fall, but it wasn't for lack of effort or ability.

Still, Machado's prospective suitors would surely prefer that he was coming off a year in which his process matched his results, so as to eliminate any questions about a damaged relationship between the two. 

There's also an interesting wrinkle in the Machado trade talks that has to do with his defense.

According to Rosenthal, he wants to move from third base to shortstop in his final year before free agency. As I've previously covered, Machado has the experience and the skills to qualify as an upside play at shortstop. But he's far from a proven product at short like he is at third, where he's won two Gold Gloves and generated a smorgasbord of highlights during his six-year career.

If the 29 teams outside Baltimore could view Machado as a chance to add a long-term piece, his offensive and defensive questions wouldn't cause executives to lose much sleep. Barring an unlikely contract extension, however, he's only going to be a one-year rental. One who'll cost a pretty penny, to boot.

And that's after paying an enormous acquisition cost to get him.

Per Rosenthal, the Orioles want two young and controllable starting pitchers for Machado. That's a big ask under any circumstances. It's a bigger ask at a time when good starters are suddenly hard to find. According to FanGraphs WAR, starting pitchers just had their worst year of the 30-team era (since 1998).

The ideal team to acquire Machado therefore would ideally be able to slot him at shortstop or third base, must have young starters to spare and, above all, must be a good enough contender to justify giving them up for him.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - OCTOBER 1: Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles throws a runner out in the bottom of the second inning of the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on October 1, 2017 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Joseph Gar
Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians are set at short and third. For them, a deal for Machado is unnecessary.

The Philadelphia Phillies (per Heyman) and Chicago White Sox (per Rosenthal) are supposedly interested and have the prospects to deal. But neither is looking at contending in 2018. For them, a deal for Machado would go to waste.

Machado could fit with either the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Angels, but not at shortstop. Besides, neither is rich with young pitching. Or ensured for contention in 2018. For them, a deal for Machado is a huge gamble they probably can't make.

The New York Yankees are a possible fit and are interested, per ESPN's Buster Olney. However, trading some of their young pitching within the AL East could come back to haunt them. The same is true of the Boston Red Sox. For these two rivals, a deal for Machado might not be worth the long-term headache.

The one team that checks all the boxes is the St. Louis Cardinals.

Coming off a disappointing 83-win season, the Cardinals made a major statement Wednesday by getting All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna in a deal with the Miami Marlins, according to Craig Mish of SiriusXM. That only cost them one player (Sandy Alcantara) from a collection of upper-tier pitching prospects, per Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald. Lastly, they can stand to upgrade over either Paul DeJong at shortstop or Jedd Gyorko at third.

Yet even with them, there's an "are you sure this is a good idea?" element. An attempt to go all-in on 2018 would require throwing their hat in the ring with the NL heavyweights in Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago. It's worth a shot, but failure could leave the Cardinals paying the price for years.

From the sound of things, no such hand-wringing is going to preclude a trade from happening between the Orioles and the Cardinals or the Orioles and whoever. The signs point toward a deal.

In this case more than many others, whoever pulls the trigger had better know what they're doing.

                 

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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