With several key players hitting the free agent market and areas of need all over the diamond, the Orioles’ roster could look significantly different come Opening Day.
- Adam Jones, OF: $49MM through 2018
- J.J. Hardy, SS: $28.5MM through 2017 (includes $2MM buyout of $14MM club option for 2018; option vests based on plate appearances)
- Ubaldo Jimenez, SP: $26.5MM through 2017
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Brian Matusz (5.156) – $3.4MM
- Nolan Reimold (5.113) – $900K
- Paul Janish (4.156) – $600K
- Chris Tillman (4.113) – $6.2MM
- Miguel Gonzalez (4.095) – $4.9MM
- Ryan Flaherty (4.000) – $1.5MM
- Zach Britton (3.158) – $6.9MM
- Vance Worley (3.112) – $2.7MM
- Brad Brach (3.063) – $1.1MM
- Manny Machado (3.056) – $5.9MM
- David Lough (2.149) – $800K
- Non-tender candidates: Janish, Lough
The Orioles have one of the most distinguished free agent classes of any team, and yet even with all of these notables hitting the open market, Adam Jones sees it as an opportunity. “It’s going to be exciting to see what goes on this offseason because I know when you have a lot of free agents that means you have a lot of money to spend,” Jones told the Baltimore Sun’s Dan Connolly in a late-season interview. “And so, hopefully, I can influence some officials to spend a little bit of that money.”
Since Dan Duquette took over as executive VP of baseball operations in late 2011, the Orioles have indeed shown an increased willingness to spend, going from an $84MM Opening Day payroll in 2012 to just under the $119MM mark for last season’s opener. A nice chunk of that increase has gone to Jones himself via his six-year, $85.5MM extension, which is still the largest contract in O’s franchise history. The Orioles may well have to break that record in order to re-sign some of their own top free agents or add major talents to replace those departing stars, which also means overcoming a well-documented wariness to long-term free agent deals.
First, the good news for the Orioles and their fans. Manny Machado was healthy and had a superstar year, Jones continued to produce, Jonathan Schoop broke out as an everyday second baseman, Ubaldo Jimenez had a solid bounce-back campaign and Zach Britton cemented himself as a reliable closer while headlining one of the game’s better bullpens last season. Combine these with former fourth overall pick Kevin Gausman, who is now established as a full-time starter, and there are worse building blocks to have in place for a team looking to reload as an AL East contender.
The problem, however, is that these are also pretty much the only areas of relative certainty amidst a very unsettled Orioles roster. It’s possible that the O’s will have openings at first base (Chris Davis), setup man (Darren O’Day), right field (Gerardo Parra), catcher (Matt Wieters) and at the front of the rotation (Wei-Yin Chen).
Let’s begin with the rotation, as it stands out as an area of need even if Chen returns — a seemingly unlikely scenario, according to several pundits. Beyond Jimenez and Gausman, Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez are likely to be back despite rough seasons that saw their ERAs catch up to their generally unimpressive career advanced metrics. It was poor timing for the arb-eligible pitchers, who failed to maximize their earning power. Assuming the Orioles bring them back, a total of $11.1MM in combined arbitration earnings is a very good price for two innings-eaters (though obviously Baltimore hopes the two can deliver more than just innings next year). If not, Tillman and Gonzalez could both potentially be non-tender candidates come next winter as their price tags keep rising.
A more aggressive move would be for the Orioles to non-tender Gonzalez (the less established of the two) this winter and replace him with one of Tyler Wilson or Mike Wright. This frees up more money to pursue a true top-of-the-rotation starter, and there’s no shortage of big-name aces on the market this winter. Baltimore could also tender Tillman and Gonzalez and then trade one or both to open a rotation spot, though they’d certainly be selling low on either pitcher.
Of course, the O’s have been particularly hesitant to spend big on pitching. Jimenez’s four-year, $50MM deal is the largest contract the team has ever given to a pitcher, and that’s probably one Duquette would like to have back given Jimenez’s up-and-down performance through two seasons. It’s probably safe to assume that David Price and Zack Greinke are out of Baltimore’s price range. Jordan Zimmermann or Johnny Cueto would command a deal worth at least twice Jimenez’s price tag, and any of the names in the second and third tiers of the free agent pitching market (Chen himself, Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija, Yovani Gallardo, Ian Kennedy) are all good bets to exceed Jimenez’s number.
Could the Orioles deal for an ace? They may not have the trade chips available given their thin farm system, which could be even more lacking given Dylan Bundy’s ongoing shoulder problems. The former top prospect is out of options, so while he could still emerge as a secret weapon if healthy, he’ll have only a short window in the Arizona Fall League and Spring Training to prove he’s fit.
Expect the O’s to look at Scott Kazmir, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ or any other quality starters who posted Chen-like numbers in 2015 but could be signed on shorter-term deals than the four or even five years that Chen could command. Simply replacing Chen, of course, doesn’t solve Baltimore’s overall pitching issues. Either owner Peter Angelos shows a greater willingness to spend on free agent arms or else the Orioles will again be relying on a lot of things to go right for their incumbent starters.
The same question of spending also applies to Davis, who is projected by MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes to land a six-year, $144MM contract this offseason. Unlike the free agent pitching market, this winter’s list of available first basemen isn’t star-studded, so there’s no easy way to make up Davis’ 47 home runs. Someone like Adam Lind (if the Brewers either don’t pick up his option or look to trade him) could be at least a passable replacement; while Lind isn’t an everyday option since he can’t hit left-handed pitching, he could be platooned with prospect Christian Walker, a right-handed bat. The Orioles could also look to trade for a similar left-handed first baseman like Ryan Howard or Adam LaRoche, or sign a potential non-tender candidate such as Pedro Alvarez or Logan Morrison. The soon-to-be-posted Byung-ho Park could also be a consideration. After all, Baltimore has dabbled in the Korean market in recent years (e.g., Suk-min Yoon) and successfully nabbed Chen from Taiwan.
Filling that gap at first base would open the door for the Orioles to replace Davis’ power with a big corner outfield bat, though names like Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward would again require huge financial commitments. Baltimore’s only current corner outfield options are David Lough, Nolan Reimold and Junior Lake, so it’s probably no surprise that the team is interested in bringing Parra back to bolster either left or right field.
In late August, MLBTR’s Jeff Todd projected that Parra could earn a 3-4 year deal with an average annual value in the $10-$15MM range, though that was before Parra suffered through a miserable September and finished with only a .625 OPS in his 238 PA as an Oriole. Even if Parra’s poor finish lowered his price into the three-year/$24MM range, in my opinion Parra may not be worth such a commitment and the O’s could instead use that money on a more consistent free agent bat.
Given the question marks in the corner outfield spots and at first base, re-signing Steve Pearce could be a sneaky-important move for the Orioles given his versatility. Pearce battled some injuries last season and regressed after his big 2014 campaign, though he still hit 15 homers in 325 PA. While Pearce’s contract value is somewhat hard to predict, his price tag shouldn’t be all that big, unless the Orioles lose him to a team that can offer more regular playing time than the part-time role he’d likely receive in Baltimore.
Beyond the headline names on the free agent outfield market, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Orioles made runs at signing Ben Zobrist or Colby Rasmus, both of whom drew interest from Baltimore last winter. Since the O’s prefer shorter-term free agent deals in general, both could be good fits — Rasmus has said he may not want to play longer than a few more seasons, while Zobrist is entering his age-35 season and may not command too lengthy a contract. (Though a four-year deal isn’t out of the question for Zobrist since his versatility is expected to draw a large amount of interest in his services.)
As mentioned, the Orioles had a pretty strong bullpen last season. While O’Day’s great numbers were a big part of that success, Baltimore could withstand his departure by elevating someone like Brad Brach to the setup role. The O’s could also explore a pretty strong setup reliever market, looking at the likes of Mark Lowe, Tony Sipp or Shawn Kelley to replace O’Day (who may earn the largest contract of any relief pitcher this offseason), or perhaps go with lower-cost options.
The O’s also have a replacement for Wieters in the form of Caleb Joseph, who only hit .234/.299/.394 with 11 homers over 355 PA last year but is a solid defender and pitch-framer. There’s been speculation that Wieters might not even be issued a qualifying offer by the Orioles in the wake of his disappointing 2015 season, as the catcher struggled both offensively and defensively after returning from Tommy John surgery.
I tend to believe that Wieters would indeed reject a QO if offered. Firstly, it would be stunning if the first player to accept a qualifying offer was a Scott Boras client given how the agent has so harshly criticized the QO concept. Secondly, between the thin catching market and Wieters’ star pedigree, he’s sure to find a multi-year deal even in the wake of a tough season. Baltimore can therefore be pretty confident in issuing Wieters a qualifying offer and at least ensuring themselves a compensatory draft pick if he signs elsewhere.
The Orioles have just under $42MM committed to three players (Jones, Jimenez, J.J. Hardy) for 2016 and MLBTR projects roughly $34.9MM for their 11 arbitration-eligible players, assuming everyone is tendered a contract. Pre-arb players in regular roles (i.e. Schoop, Gausman, Joseph) will take up a few more roster spots at minimum salaries. If the 2016 payroll stays in the $119MM range, that leaves Duquette with approximately $42MM to work with this winter.
That’s certainly enough room to add at least one big salary into the mix. Since Angelos has specifically gone on record as saying the team will try to re-sign Davis, I would guess that if the Orioles are going to break the bank on a signing, it will be for the slugging first baseman since that kind of power is hard to find in today’s game. The O’s have been more willing to spend on position players (Jones, Hardy, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis) than on pitchers, so it makes sense that they’d try harder to retain a familiar big bat than they would a free agent ace.
Jones, Jimenez and Hardy are also the only players signed beyond 2016, so the Orioles have space on the books for another long-term commitment. It seems likely, however, that the O’s will look to the future in another sense by considering extensions for Schoop and possibly Machado, though Duquette has said that a Machado extension isn’t a major priority for this offseason.
This certainly promises to be, by far, the Orioles’ busiest winter under Duquette, as his tenure has been marked more by canny under-the-radar acquisitions — i.e. Chen, Gonzalez or Pearce — than by flashy trades or free agent signings. Even the one-year, $8MM signing of Nelson Cruz in February 2014 (Duquette’s most successful free agent deal) was rather a unique circumstance given how Cruz’s market was chilled by a PED suspension and the qualifying offer.
Hardy was the only one of Baltimore’s free agents to re-sign last winter, as the Orioles lost Cruz, Markakis and Andrew Miller to free agency. The O’s have internal replacements for a few of this winter’s free agents, but another mass exodus would leave the team with simply too many holes to fill. Duquette will have to be creative and Angelos will have to be willing to go beyond his contractual comfort zone in order to get the Orioles back into playoff contention. If not…well, if last winter’s free agent 0-fer allegedly led to tension between Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, a repeat performance could result in some front office changes.