It was not a great week for the Yankees.
The architect of the Curse-busting Red Sox, Theo Epstein, reunited with that franchise. Perhaps only AI-generated prime versions of Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz rejoining the Red Sox would have been more distasteful to the Yankees than Epstein returning on a macro level to a Boston leadership group that has been so uninspiring and unfocused.
Meanwhile, the Yankees’ far greater current concerns grew more so with the revelation that the defending AL East champ Orioles are being bought by two private equity billionaires who, in the near future, should be able to help Baltimore grow its payroll significantly.
In the even shorter term, the Orioles landed just the piece it needed most for 2024, by acquiring the durable ace Corbin Burnes from Milwaukee.
For the Yankees, it appears just as the Astros’ brilliant run might be nearing an end due to age, the loss of key pieces and a fallow farm system, the 2.0 version is blooming in Charm City.
Mike Elias, a key lieutenant in Houston’s rise from tankers to titleists, has as the GM since November 2018 launched the Orioles by using a similar blueprint of capitalizing on high draft picks to snag cornerstones akin to Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman with Adley Rutschman and Jackson Holliday. And when the moment has come to win, using a deep system to land a Verlander-esque horse like Burnes.
“We are at a time when moves like this make sense,” Elias said by phone. “It did occur to me that Jeff [Luhnow, former Astros GM] and [team owner] Jim Crane were with [Justin] Verlander and Gerrit Cole [trades] able to exploit the depth of the farm system to bring in those impact arms at kind of the exact right moment. It’s really hard to do. I was a little pessimistic about it even though that was what you would draw up as the plan for this offseason. It wasn’t clear how many of these guys were actually going to be on the trade market. So that was the part that I wasn’t really sure about. But we ended up getting lucky and it worked out. I hope it works out during the season.”
Here is what should scare not just the Yankees, but the industry: The Orioles used two well-regarded prospects in pitcher DL Hall and infielder Joey Ortiz plus the 34th pick in the July draft to land Burnes on Thursday. Yet on Friday, both Baseball America and The Athletic released their rankings of which organization had the best prospect base, and both entities ranked the Orioles (even without Hall and Oritz) as by far their No. 1.
“The rankings obviously are not going to last forever, but I kind of viewed that as a good thing, because it’ll mean that the players are up in the majors playing in front of Orioles fans,” Elias said. “That young talent is going to be here for a long time. So we’re very excited. I do believe that we’re at a precipice of what’s going to be just a really enjoyable era of Orioles baseball, and we’re going to keep investing in that as best we can.”
The investing soon will be orchestrated by the deep-pocketed David Rubenstein and Michael Arougheti, who are purchasing 40 percent of the club with a plan to gain full control upon the death of current owner, 94-year-old Peter Angelos. Even their presence is unlikely to keep Burnes long-term. He is represented by Scott Boras, who tends to have his best players test free agency, which often leads to a relocation (see, for example, Cole, Bryce Harper and Corey Seager).
The Yankees were among the teams that had inquired with the Brewers on Burnes. But it might just have been that with Juan Soto they reached their tolerance for giving up major assets for a Boras client entering his walk year. That it was the Orioles who were willing to give up such collateral for a likely one-year rental spoke to where they think they are in the contention cycle and their prospect depth.
Ortiz, for example, is a slick-fielding infielder, but in 2023 AL Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Jorge Mateo and Ramon Urias, the Orioles had depth here. Then there is Holliday, so precocious after being the 2022 top pick that the Orioles were weighing bringing him up for the stretch run last year before his 20th birthday. Making it to the majors as an American position player drafted out of high school with fewer than 200 games is the realm of meteors such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. But this is the esteem with which Matt Holliday’s son is viewed.
Holliday has a chance to elevate an already strong/athletic positional group. And now Burnes, in the words of one NL executive, “is the perfect fit. He pushes [Kyle] Bradish and Grayson [Rodriguez] down to the No. 2-3 starters, which should take the pressure off of them some, and gives Baltimore a real 1-2-3 for October. And how they are set up, that is what they should be playing for — October. This was a trade they should have made.”
Elias said, “We won  games in the American League East last year, and we have 90-95 percent of that team coming back. We have a real good shot with this team, and we recognize the arms race that tends to happen in our division. We could really use a rotation upgrade. So we went out and got one. We have a high-quality, deep farm system, and we were able to exploit it to access a guy like this. We are really excited by it.”
Perhaps the biggest concern is with Craig Kimbrel signed as the closer to replace Felix Bautista, who will miss 2024 after Tommy John surgery. But this feels like an area the Orioles — if necessary — can address with that deep system as the season progresses.
It is a long way from winning 32.6 percent of their games from 2018-21. The rise is kind of (close your eyes Yankees fans) Astro-nomical.