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Deal Machado ... or win in '18? O's must pick

MLB.com @RichardJustice

The Orioles still have time to add starting pitching. In fact, the free-agent market is flush with quality starters -- Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and Andrew Cashner.

Or there's still time to trade Manny Machado. Don't let his impending free agency fool you. If your goal is to win in 2018, he'd be a huge addition to a long list of teams.

The Orioles still have time to add starting pitching. In fact, the free-agent market is flush with quality starters -- Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and Andrew Cashner.

Or there's still time to trade Manny Machado. Don't let his impending free agency fool you. If your goal is to win in 2018, he'd be a huge addition to a long list of teams.

There's a case to be made for either approach. Less understandable is doing nothing. And that's where the O's are at the moment.

Manager Buck Showalter has a long history of getting every ounce from his teams, and maybe Baltimore will surprise us again in 2018.

But it's not realistic to pick the Orioles anywhere other than last in the American League East, and Machado's value may decline the closer he gets to free agency.

In or out? That's the decision the O's have to make. If they're in, they simply can't begin this season with a rotation of Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and question marks.

Even if top prospects like Hunter Harvey and Tanner Scott make the big leagues this season, Baltimore badly needs more.

That's the silver lining of this strange offseason. Arrieta, Lynn, Cobb and Cashner are unsigned. Even if the Orioles aren't inclined to go for a reunion with Arrieta -- or he's not inclined for a return trip to his original team -- there are other arms that would make them better.

Would any of them -- or all of them -- insert the O's into the thick of the AL East race with the Yankees and Red Sox?

Maybe that's the wrong question to ask. What happens if the Orioles don't do anything? What then? They're headed for a rebuild after this season with Machado, center fielder Adam Jones and closer Zach Britton all headed for free agency.

But the only reason to hold onto all of them this long is to try to contend in 2018. There was always doubt that team owner Peter Angelos would sign off on a Machado trade, but executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette spent several days listening to offers to get a feel for the market and give his boss an array of options.

Video: Showalter discusses Machado moving to shortstop

It's completely understandable that Angelos would be reluctant to trade a player who has meant so much to both the franchise and the city. Machado's debut in 2012 signaled a baseball renaissance in Baltimore.

Over the past six seasons, only the Yankees and Indians have won more regular-season games in the AL. And the O's have made the playoffs three times.

The Orioles' 2012 playoff appearance was the franchise's first in 15 years, and late in that season, Jones looked around at the roaring crowds at Camden Yards and asked former head trainer Richie Bancells, "Is this the way it used to be around here?"

"Yeah, it is," Bancells said.

In these six seasons, Machado has emerged as one of baseball's resplendent stars, a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner. Because he'd just celebrated his 20th birthday when he debuted in 2012, he'll be a free agent at 26, which is likely to prompt one of the great bidding wars in history.

To part with this kind of player is the toughest thing any club can ever do. But that's the best, and most realistic, option without more pitching.

The Yankees, D-backs and Cardinals would almost certainly be interested, and all three have highly regarded prospects. The O's will not get the package of players they would have gotten at, say, last summer's non-waiver Trade Deadline, but that's life.

If you're questioning the decision to hold onto him, don't. On July 31 last season, Baltimore was in the thick of the postseason race, despite a rotation that Showalter had held together with paper clips and chewing gum.

The Orioles were 6 1/2 games out in the AL East and 4 1/2 back in the race for the second AL Wild Card berth. They were right there on Sept. 1 as well, a mere 2 1/2 games behind in the Wild Card race.

That's when things came undone. The O's lost 19 of 23 during one stretch, then finished last in the AL East and 10 games out in the Wild Card chase. Sometime after that, there was a month of speculation about signing off on one of the Machado trade offers.

When Machado was pulled off the market, the Orioles made it clear they would like to add some starting pitching and keep the core together for another run. This they have not done.

There's still time to pivot in either direction. To stand pat would be puzzling.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Baltimore Orioles, Manny Machado