If a player is rumored to be on the trade block or gets non-tendered or is designated for assignment, fans want to know if the Orioles have interest.
Truth is, the Orioles front office hears the same rumors and views the same transaction info as you do. And they vet pretty much every option. And they have interest, to varying extents, on most players.
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But having some interest and doing something about it – signing a player or finding the right trade fit – are far different concepts.
Even if the Orioles really like a player, especially one on the trade block, that doesn’t mean the other team will like what the Orioles have to offer. And if the Orioles think that player is an intriguing fit, chances are other clubs view him the same way – and so there is competition there, and probably from teams with deeper systems (see Dickey, R.A.).
The latest name out there is Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak. And, in my opinion, it’s a good name to vet. The Orioles have had interest in Smoak since the 2008 draft, when the Orioles took Brian Matusz with the fourth pick in the first round and the Texas Rangers grabbed Smoak with the 11th selection.
Because the Orioles were searching for first base power back then – notice a trend? – Smoak was high on their board. But instead they went with the most polished pitcher in that year’s class.
The Orioles kicked the tires on Smoak – who was dealt to the Mariners in a six-player trade in July 2010 for ace Cliff Lee – each of the last two winters. And his name arose again recently when the Mariners traded for designated hitter/first baseman Kendrys Morales and signed free agent Raul Ibanez, creating a logjam at DH and first base (which also includes Mike Carp and Jesus Montero).
To get Morales, the Mariners traded away solid lefty Jason Vargas (another previous Orioles trade target), so Seattle could potentially use another starting pitcher. The Orioles have somewhat of a surplus there, and so Baltimore has been seen as an obvious landing spot for Smoak if he is dealt away. Throw in the fact that Smoak was a high school teammate and buddy of Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, and it makes it even more intriguing. Just imagine the marketing possibilities with Goose Creek, South Carolina’s finest wearing Orioles uniforms.
I say, "if Smoak is dealt away," however, because, as Seattle Times baseball writer Geoff Baker points out, Morales is a free agent at the end of 2013 and Smoak still has minor league options remaining. So one way to clear the logjam is just to send Smoak to Triple-A, allowing him more time to discover the stroke that made him such a coveted prospect years ago.
There’s also a little face-saving involved here. Dealing away Smoak would be a white flag of sorts in Seattle because he was the centerpiece in that Lee deal. Of the other three players received in that trade, only starter Blake Beavan remains in the organization.
And despite Smoak’s rough beginning to his career – he has hit .223 with a .306 on-base percentage in parts of three seasons – there is enough potential there that it should give the Mariners some pause. He just turned 26, and after a disastrous 2012 in which he was hitting .189 when demoted to Triple-A in July, he turned it around, batting .341 with a .428 on-base percentage in September/October for the Mariners.
They can’t just give him away, and so they’d have to find the right fit, somebody who wouldn’t make Mariners fans throw up their hands in protest. Chris Tillman probably would be an easy sell, a former Seattle prospect who got away in the Erik Bedard trade.
But I think the Orioles would be reluctant to deal Tillman based on how well he pitched in 2012. One guy who would be more attainable is Matusz, who was equally as hyped as Smoak and has had his share of successes and failures in his young career. That would be a swapping of two high ceiling 2008 first-rounders.
This, of course, is pure speculation. I don’t know what the Orioles’ brain trust thinks of Smoak or how the Mariners view Matusz.
And I don’t expect to know. The respective GMs, Dan Duquette and Jack Zduriencik, are about as close to the vest as they come in major league baseball. They give new meaning to “trade secrets.”
What I do know is that Smoak is the kind of guy that the Orioles are looking for: A switch hitter with power potential, relatively young, under team control for four more seasons and a good defender who has served as a designated hitter as well. He could play first if Chris Davis doesn’t work out there or be a DH candidate if Davis does fulfill his defensive potential.
Smoak also may be an undervalued asset – the Duquette holy grail – because he has struck out too often and hasn’t gotten on base enough in his big league career. As one scout told me, “He’s got a real long swing, and doesn’t make contact nearly enough, but there’s too much [talent] there to completely give up on.”
And that could ultimately be a detriment for an Orioles trade. The Mariners not only would have to give up on the cost-effective and talented Smoak, but they’d have to believe whatever would come back in return would help them more than Smoak in the future.
That’s a question I can’t answer. But, at this time of year when the hot stove is still flickering, it is one that’s interesting to ponder.