Offseason Outlook: Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles will look to add a starting pitcher and another big bat (or two) to help them get back to the postseason, while also juggling a number of interesting arbitration cases.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Contract Options

Free Agents

After a surprise playoff berth in 2012, the Orioles proved they weren't a fluke by posting another winning season in 2013.  What kept the O's six games out of an AL wild card slot, however, was their starting pitching, as Baltimore ranked near the bottom of the league in ERA (27th), innings pitched (22nd) and strikeouts (24th).

While improvement is clearly needed, the O's are in the difficult position of having a number of possible rotation upgrades within the organization already, except that they're still waiting for several of these young arms to break out.  The club doesn't want to acquire an expensive starter when a much more cost-effective hurler could emerge if just given an opportunity.  Orioles executive VP Dan Duquette recently said that the team wants to improve its pitching without trading top prospects or spending too much in free agency, so Duquette may have to get creative if he wants to make a significant rotation upgrade.

Chris Tillman has posted a 3.48 ERA with a 7.5 K/9 and 2.66 K/BB rate in 48 starts over the last two seasons, and the 2013 All-Star is the incumbent ace of Baltimore's staff.  Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen line up behind him having both delivered solid 2013 campaigns, though Chen spent a couple of months on the disabled list.  Bud Norris also returns having posted a 4.80 ERA in 11 games after he came to Baltimore from Houston in July, though that number was inflated by one particularly rough start against Oakland and a .387 BABIP for Norris as an Oriole.

Scott Feldman, the team's other major midseason starting acquisition, is a free agent and both sides share an interest in continuing their relationship.  MLBTR's Steve Adams predicts Feldman will find a two-year, $17MM contract (with a vesting option on a third year) on the free agent market this winter and that's a price that that Orioles would likely be able to fit into their budget, as long as another team doesn't offer Feldman a guaranteed third year.

Jason Hammel got the start on Opening Day after looking like a breakout star in 2012, but the right-hander struggled to a 4.97 ERA in 139 1/3 IP last year and now is rumored to have pitched his last game in the black and orange.  Hammel has had troubles staying healthy so, unless he re-signs for little more than his $6.75MM 2013 salary, the Orioles will probably let him go elsewhere.

On the "young phenom" front, Kevin Gausman posted a 5.66 ERA but a 9.3 K/9 and 3.77 K/BB over his first 47 2/3 Major League innings in 2013.  He could win himself a rotation spot with a big spring, though the O's might want to give him more Triple-A seasoning before expecting him to produce in a pennant-contending rotation.  Dylan Bundy (a preseason consensus top-three prospect in baseball), underwent Tommy John surgery last June and won't be able to contribute until midseason at best, though since he has only one year of pro experience, it's likely the Orioles will take it easy on his arm and not bring him back to the Majors right away.

Zach Britton, Steve Johnson and T.J. McFarland will be given chances to impress as starting pitchers for 2014, while Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter could again be stretched out but the O's are more likely to leave them in the bullpen where they were successful last season.  Britton and Matusz are both out of options and could be trade bait — Britton could be on his last chance in the organization, while the Orioles expected more from Matusz (picked fourth overall in the 2008 draft) by this point in his career.  While Duquette did say he wasn't planning to move any top prospects, the O's already moved one ex-top prospect earlier this year when they dealt Jake Arrieta to the Cubs as part of the Feldman trade.  It wouldn't be a shock to see Britton or Matusz go elsewhere as part of a swap for more proven talent if Baltimore is willing to move on from these young arms. 

While a Tillman/Gonzalez/Chen/Norris rotation is okay and there are a lot of interesting depth arms in the system, it's also basically a stand-pat pitching situation that might not be enough to keep pace in the AL East even if Feldman is re-signed.  One other free agent possibility, however, could be Ricky Nolasco, as the O's explored a deal for the righty last summer.  Nolasco was projected to earn a three-year/$36MM contract according to MLBTR's Tim Dierkes, though that prediction was made before Nolasco fell apart in late September and made just one postseason start for L.A.  If his price tag drops enough, Nolasco could again be on the Orioles' radar.

It's hard to predict just how much payroll space the Orioles have to play with this offseason given their long list of arbitration-eligible players.  Even without counting their three non-tender candidates, MLBTR's Matt Swartz projects the eight remaining arb-eligible players to receive $41.2MM.  That amount plus the payroll already committed for 2014 adds up to $86.6MM for 14 players.  While the O's are fortunate to have such key players as Tillman and Manny Machado still on their pre-arb contracts, they could still end up spending $100MM-$110MM essentially to bring back last year's roster.

The financial situation further shift if Chris Davis and Matt Wieters are signed to multiyear extensions.  Talks with Wieters and agent Scott Boras went nowhere last offseason and we've heard that some in the O's organization feel Wieters will definitely test the open market following the 2015 season.  While Wieters had a big drop in production last season, the argument can still be made that the Orioles should lock him up in case he makes the leap next year.  Davis is a much more intriguing case following his monster 2013 campaign.  The first baseman says he wants to stay but he's also a Boras client, so Baltimore isn't likely to get a bargain if they do explore a longer-term deal.

While pitching is the Orioles' biggest concern, they have a few holes around the diamond as well, though third base probably won't be one provided that Machado's knee injury heals as projected.  Even if Machado misses the maximum six months and doesn't return until late April, a platoon of Danny Valencia and Ryan Flaherty should be enough to keep things steady at third until Machado is fit.

Flaherty is also in the mix at second, though Baltimore will be hoping to get much more production out of the keystone position and is looking for a solid everyday option.  The 77 games Brian Roberts played in 2013 was his highest total in the last four years, so while it's possible the Orioles could bring him back on a one-year deal as a depth option, they simply can't rely on the 36-year-old as a regular.  Jonathan Schoop got a cup of coffee in the bigs last September but with just 289 Triple-A plate appearances to his credit, Schoop may need more seasoning before the Orioles can confidently hand him the second base job.

Since Schoop is waiting in the wings as the possible 2B of the future, the Orioles could just re-sign Roberts and then pursue another veteran on a short-term contract to make do at second for 2014.  Or, they could take care of the position for at least two years by trading for the Angels' Howie Kendrick, who has been suggested as a possible trade target for Baltimore.  Kendrick is owed a reasonable $18.85MM through 2015 and could be a very solid bridge until Schoop is ready.  This is just speculation on my part, but the O's match up well as a trade partner for the pitching-needy Angels since the Halos are a team that would be interested in slightly-tarnished but promising young arms like Matusz or Britton as part of a package for Kendrick.

Nate McLouth projects to fetch a two-year, $10MM commitment as a free agent, according to Dierkes, which could be a bit much for the Orioles given that McLouth struggles against lefty pitching and would require a platoon partner in left field.  Mike Morse only posted a .237 OPS in 12 games as an Oriole and isn't expected to be re-signed by the club, even if he makes sense as a right-handed hitting side of a DH platoon.  Henry Urrutia's first pro season saw him post a .983 OPS in Double-A (224 PA), a .788 OPS in Triple-A (123 PA) and a .586 OPS in 58 PA at the Major League level.

Urrutia is the only left field option on the roster, so expect the O's to acquire either an everyday left fielder or designated hitter, with Urrutia and a right-handed hitting batter filling the other spot.  Valencia hit well as a DH in 2013 and could be that righty bat, or it could be Nolan Reimold; the Orioles are expected to non-tender Reimold and then try to re-sign him to an incentives-laden contract.  There are enough platoon options here that the O's could save money by just signing a low-level veteran or two to fill out the roster as part-timers.

Right field could be an offseason focus for the Orioles.  Nick Markakis suffered the worst season of his eight-year career, hitting only .271/.329/.356 with 10 homers in 700 PA and posting a negative (-0.1) WAR according to both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.  Markakis could be on the decline and while he's still penciled in as Baltimore's everyday right fielder, he's headed into the last year of his contract and is owed $17MM ($15MM in salary, plus $2MM for the O's to buy out his $17.5MM option for 2015).  The Orioles would definitely eat some money in a Markakis trade but it might be worth it to free up a bit of extra payroll space if he's no longer a reliable option.

A dominant bullpen was a big part of the Orioles' success in 2012 but the relief corps was mostly average last year, finishing with a 3.52 ERA that ranked 15th in the majors.  Jim Johnson's peripherals took a step back but the closer still finished the year with 50 games, a 2.94 ERA and a 3.11 K/BB rate.  Duquette has already said that the stopper will be tendered a contract, though if the Orioles have payroll parameters in mind, you'd think they'd explore trading a closer making $10.8MM per year.  The O's can solidify their bullpen with some of the aforementioned young starting candidates like McFarland, or keeping the likes of Matusz and Hunter in their current relief roles.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Baltimore add one more veteran reliever to fill the void left by the departing Francisco Rodriguez.

Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun recently opined that since the current Orioles roster has proven they can win, the onus is now on management to raise payroll and take the necessary final steps necessary to make this team a true contender.  Platoons and internal options are fine, but it's hard to argue that the O's wouldn't be better off improving their rotation or team OBP simply by signing, say, Matt Garza or Shin-Soo Choo.  I don't see Baltimore being a big player in free agency since they wouldn't want to surrender their unprotected first-round draft pick, but taking on a big salary or two via trade wouldn't be out of the question if the O's were willing to up the payroll.

The good news for Orioles fans is that their club looks to have a solid enough core in place that nobody is worrying about the bottom falling out for the O's anymore.  Even in the tough AL East, it seems like Baltimore has enough quality pieces to be competitive, though some work still needs to be done to make this roster into something special.  

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!