The Brian Matusz trade and Dan Duquette's willingness to deal draft picks.
Participants: Elie Waitzer, Patrick Dougherty, Avi Miller
Elie Waitzer: The Orioles got two Minor League arms - Brandon Barker and Trevor Belicek - from the Braves in exchange for Brian Matusz, but the real swap had nothing to do with any of those players. Atlanta immediately DFA'd Matusz, and the neither of the arms were thought of as prospects. If you want to read about how Barker and Belicek might pan out, Chris Mitchell did a good write up on Fangraphs.
Broken down into simple terms, this was a creative win-now/win-later trade between Dan Duquette and Braves GM John Coppolella. Baltimore got present-day financial flexibility by offloading the remaining $3M of Matusz contract. Atlanta got future financial flexibility in the form of an additional $830K in bonus pool allocation that comes with the 76th draft pick that will allow the Braves to be more aggressive in the draft.
This is clearly not a stand-alone trade, and it's how Duquette springboards off of this move that will determine whether it was worth it for the Orioles to reduce their ability to potentially grab better talent in mid-late rounds of the drafts (with the 27th, 54th, and 69th picks.)
The best case scenario is that the $3M in savings will give Duquette some extra wiggle room at the trade deadline to make the O's a more attractive trading partner for teams looking to deal starting pitching. The ability to take on more of a player's contract gives Baltimore an edge over other teams, and makes up in part for the fact that they won't be able to offer the kind of prospects other teams will (Keith Law ranked the O's farm system 27th at the start of 2016).
Before the start of the season, Matt Kremnitzer looked at the best and worst cases for the rotation and set a pessimistic tone by referencing Fangraphs' dismal projections for the O's starters. Despite their collective 3.80 ERA, the ragtag starting staff has vastly outperformed expectations, ranking ninth in the league by total WAR (3.9) thus far. But the pleasant start has been fueled largely by strong starts from Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman, not by solid depth 1 through 5. If this move leads (or partially leads) to the O's landing rotation help in the form of James Shields, Rich Hill, Jimmy Nelson, or any solid arm that can take innings away from Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson, I'll consider it a win. Until then, the jury is out.
Patrick Dougherty: They say to trust your gut, and with a few days to think on this deal, I feel the same way I did when my phone buzzed with the notification. Brian Matusz has been a non-factor for the Orioles for years, and taking his $3.9 million salary (or the $3M of it that the Braves will assume) off the books is, in a vacuum, a win. I thought the Orioles were overpaying for Matusz when they made the one-year deal to avoid arbitration because I didn't think of him as anything more than a mediocre LOOGY (lefties have hit him for a .276 average in his career, although Matusz has successfully stayed away from giving lefties walks or home runs). Apparently, the team thought Matusz could work his way into a less specialized bullpen role, or at least into a decent return in a trade. Clearly, he could not.
The minor good of ridding the team of a player who directly affects about 3% of the Orioles' innings in a year (50 IP/1,458 innings in 162 9-inning games) is vastly outweighed by the bad of giving up the 76th pick in next year's draft. The stars-and-scrubs method of roster construction is highly variant and, in my opinion, a mistake to pursue. Particularly for a team that is in one of the smallest markets in the league and likes to paint itself as being cash-strapped, the best way to build a competitive roster is through drafting and developing well. The Orioles do neither.
In some cases, I may be tempted to argue that because the Orioles have proven themselves to be largely incapable of drafting and developing players, particularly pitchers, it makes sense for the team to ditch picks in favor of cash with which to bring in arms that have learned the game elsewhere. That specialization of labor model might be attractive if the Orioles sat atop a pile of cash the way the Yankees or the Dodgers do, but I'm tired of making the argument in favor of giving up on what is the Orioles' most obvious path for continued, cheap success.
Instead, I'll go in the opposite direction. Because the Orioles are ineffective drafters, they should be taking a shotgun approach: take the best players available as often as possible and pray that one of them becomes the exception to the organization's deflating rule.
If I sound fed up, I am. During the offseason, the Warehouse talks about the importance of draft picks and why the team just can't give them up to sign premiere free agents who were extended qualifying offers. This Matusz trade marks the second time in two years that the organization has given away a pick to dump the relatively meager salary of an average reliever (not to mention the pick given up for Bud Norris and the many international signing slots the team has traded away in recent years).
The Matusz trade is, in my opinion, a failure both in terms of the potential that the team jettisoned by trading away a competitive balance pick, and in terms of continuing the Orioles' precedent of undervaluing draft picks. I don't believe $3 million in wiggle room is going to allow the team to bring in a stud pitcher at the deadline; they cost a lot more than that, and the budget is already stretched, as far as anyone outside the Warehouse knows. I do believe that the team consistently undervalues draft picks - or realizes that they're so bad with them that they're using them as currency because they've given up.
Avi Miller: So why exactly did the Orioles even tender Matusz heading into 2016? Complaints abound among the Baltimore fan base, Dan Duquette knew very well that Matusz would command a fourth-year arbitration salary above $3.2 million, his 2015 earnings.
Matusz, despite popular belief, could have been a very serviceable middle relief arm in 2015. Though his career average against when facing left-handed hitters is .276, as Patrick noted, I redirect your attention to his 2015 showing against that same group: .185/.231/.333 across 109 batters faced.
Thus, as a LOOGY, Matusz slotted in quite nicely. Even when he took the mound against almost the equivalent number of batters in the right-handed batter's box, the results were not dreadful: .238/.375/.346 across 97 batters faced (16 walks killed him against this group).
So a salary expectation in the mid-$3 million range for a left-hander after a 49-inning season to the tune of a 2.94 ERA wasn't absurd, to say the least. And here's why.
The table above compares Matusz to two other notable lefty relievers, Tony Sipp and Zach Duke. The numbers shown are from the 2013-2015 seasons.
Tony Sipp, a veteran who had a choppy history with both Cleveland and Arizona before settling in Houston a couple years ago, signed a three-year, $18 million contract to return to the Astros prior to the 2016 campaign.
Zach Duke, taking an even bumpier road starting in Pittsburgh back in 2005, earned a three-year, $15 million contract with the White Sox two offseasons ago.
As such, Brian Matusz was on his way to a nice little payday following the 2016 season. How he gets there now is a bit more in question.