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With some key position players hitting free agency and a still-unsettled rotation, the Orioles are looking at another busy offseason.
- Chris Davis, 1B: $138MM through 2022
- Adam Jones, CF: $33MM through 2018
- Darren O’Day, RP: $25MM through 2019
- J.J. Hardy, SS: $14MM through 2017 ($14MM club option for 2018, $2MM buyout)
- Ubaldo Jimenez, SP: $13.5MM through 2017
- Yovani Gallardo, SP: $11MM through 2017 ($13MM club option for 2018, $2MM buyout)
- Wade Miley, SP: $8.75MM through 2017 ($12MM club option for 2018, $500K buyout)
- Hyun Soo Kim, LF: $4.2MM through 2017
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Chris Tillman (5.113) – $10.6MM
- Ryan Flaherty (5.000) – $1.7MM
- Zach Britton (4.158) – $11.4MM
- Vance Worley (4.112) – $3.3MM
- Brad Brach (4.063) – $2.9MM
- Manny Machado (4.056) – $11.2MM
- Jonathan Schoop (3.027) – $3.4MM
- T.J. McFarland (3.007) – $700K
- Kevin Gausman (2.151) – $3.9MM
- Caleb Joseph (2.135) – $1.0MM
- Non-tender candidates: Flaherty, Worley, McFarland
- Mark Trumbo, Matt Wieters, Pedro Alvarez, Steve Pearce, Michael Bourn, Tommy Hunter, Nolan Reimold, Brian Duensing, Paul Janish, Drew Stubbs
It’s probably safe to assume that the Orioles aren’t going to drop another $243MM on free agents this offseason. Last winter’s club-record splurge may have been more or less a one-time-only expenditure, as most of that spending went towards keeping a cornerstone piece (Chris Davis) in the fold.
That being said, it would be unusual for owner Peter Angelos to close the wallet altogether just a year later, especially since the O’s made it back to the postseason (albeit just as far as the wild card game). With a number of roster holes that need to be addressed, executive VP of baseball operations Dan Duquette will likely need some cash to again dip into the free agent market, or be creative on the trade front given the Orioles’ lack of attractive minor league trade depth.
The O’s have just under $96MM committed to only eight players for 2017, plus a projected $50.1MM to their ten-player arbitration class. Even if you shave off the salaries of the possible non-tenders, so Baltimore is looking at over $141MM (almost the size of its 2016 Opening Day payroll) for 15 players. In short, the Orioles will surely set a new franchise high for payroll, unless they free up some money in trades.
Given the near-historic weakness of this year’s free agent pitching market, it’s not out of the question that the O’s could shop Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo or Wade Miley. All three starters are under contract only through 2017, so it’s possible another club could take a one-year (or longer, since Gallardo and Miley are under club options for 2018) flier on any of the pitchers.
Of course, Baltimore wouldn’t be selling high on any of the three since Jimenez, Miley and Gallardo are all coming off rough seasons. Jimenez was briefly removed from the rotation in August but pitched quite well down the stretch once he got his starting job back. Miley’s advanced metrics hint that he pitched better in his 11 starts as an Oriole than his 6.17 ERA would indicate, though he is still waiting on that breakout season. Gallardo’s first year in Baltimore was essentially a disaster, punctuated by two trips to the DL, a 5.42 ERA and just 0.6 fWAR over 118 innings.
Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman are locked in the top two rotation spots, so it seems like the O’s would have to move one of their other three veterans to create room for Dylan Bundy. Returning after missing three full MLB seasons to injury, Bundy worked mostly out of the bullpen in 2016 but showed glimpses of his potential when shifted to the rotation later in the year. Bundy’s health history could keep him on an innings limit, but the Orioles are going to give their former first-rounder every chance to stick in the rotation. Jimenez, Miley and Gallardo could be fighting amongst themselves for the last two starting jobs, with the loser going to the bullpen (though none are seen as ideal candidates to do so) or perhaps to another team in a trade.
Then again, dealing a starter may not be a great idea for a team that is itself looking for pitching upgrades. Could the Orioles look into adding a free agent pitcher? It isn’t a great winter to be looking for starters, so barring a trade, it’s more probable that Baltimore hangs onto its own mid-tier rotation options rather than sign another one. That said, the O’s waited until pretty late into the offseason to sign both Jimenez and Gallardo, as both pitchers saw their markets hampered by the qualifying offer. That tactic probably won’t work this winter (Jeremy Hellickson is likely to be the only free agent starter who receives a qualifying offer), though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Duquette check in on any notable starters still lingering on the market in February.
The other end of the pitching equation has far fewer issues, as the Orioles fielded one of the league’s best bullpens. Even with longtime setup man Darren O’Day battling injuries for much of the year, the relief corps still posted excellent numbers thanks to workhorses Brad Brach and Mychal Givens, and the all-timer of a season delivered by closer Zach Britton.
With Britton’s value at an all-time high and the closer projected for a hefty $11.4MM arbitration salary, Britton himself recently discussed the possibility that the O’s could trade him as they did ex-closer Jim Johnson when Johnson’s price tag got too high. With so many other star relievers (Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon) available in free agency and the Royals potentially considering a Wade Davis trade, the closing market is already pretty crowded this winter. On the other hand, big spenders like the Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Giants, Rangers and Yankees will all be looking for bullpen upgrades and at least some of those teams will be left empty-handed in the free agent frenzy and the Davis sweepstakes.
The issue with trading Britton, of course, is that the O’s would be weakening their clearest strength. The bullpen’s dominance helped account for a lot of flaws around the roster — the middling rotation, a below-average defense and even a lineup that relied too much on the long ball. Baltimore hit a league-best 253 homers last season but managed just a .317 OBP. While an above-average club on the basepaths as per Fangraphs’ BsR metric, the Orioles combined for just 19 steals in 2016, easily the fewest of any team and fewer than 28 individual players.
The infield core of Davis, Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy and superstar Manny Machado will remain intact, and long-time franchise stalwart Adam Jones will return in center field, even if his glovework in center took a big step backwards. Hyun Soo Kim went from looking overmatched in Spring Training to delivering a very solid first season in the majors, but he didn’t record a hit in just 22 plate appearances against southpaws. He will return as the lefty-swinging side of a platoon in either left field or potentially designated hitter. (Rookies Trey Mancini and Christian Walker are both right-handed bats that could platoon with Kim at DH, and Walker is a possible option in left as well.)
That leaves lots of room around the diamond for the Orioles to add speed, athleticism and better all-around batting. If the O’s would still prefer pure power over these attributes, however, they could look to re-sign Mark Trumbo. The slugger hit .256/.316/.533 with a league-high 47 homers over 667 plate appearances, though aside from all this thump, Trumbo brought little else in average, OBP or defensive value. He also slumped badly in the second half and had unusual splits (.932 OPS against right-handers, .608 OPS against lefties) for a right-handed batter whose numbers against all pitchers had been pretty even entering 2016.
Trumbo’s big power year will ensure that the O’s issue him a qualifying offer, so the team will be in line for a first-round draft pick as compensation if he signs elsewhere. It’s hard to let 47 homers walk out the door, though on a team with so much pop already on the roster, Trumbo seems somewhat expendable. The O’s could collect a much-needed draft pick and replace Trumbo with a more well-rounded player in right field.
Of the other Oriole free agents, Steve Pearce or Nolan Reimold could be fits as platoon partners for Kim, with Pearce potentially serving as an everyday option given how well he has hit both lefties and righties in two of the last three seasons. Pearce isn’t a defensive whiz at any position but he is versatile, seeing time at first, second, third, left and right with the Rays and Orioles in 2016. Pearce is liable to receive a lot of free agent attention despite the fact that his recovery from forearm surgery could stretch into Spring Training, though one could assume that his familiarity with Baltimore could give the O’s something of an edge over most other teams. Late-season addition Michael Bourn impressed the team and is open to a return, though that would likely mean setting up another platoon situation in right field.
Extension talks with Pedro Alvarez went nowhere in September, so while a reunion could still occur, Alvarez is another power-only player that the O’s may feel comfortable letting go — particularly since he, too, is mostly limited to facing right-handed pitching. If both Alvarez and Trumbo depart, the Orioles simply look to obtain the next Alvarez and Trumbo — players with big power and whose defensive shortcomings could be masked in the DH role. Between Alvarez, Trumbo and Nelson Cruz, the O’s have had great success in recent years in acquiring productive sluggers at relatively low prices.
With both corner spots and the DH spot essentially open aside from Kim, the Orioles have lots of options in a free agent market deep in all three areas. They could sign a pure platooner like Rajai Davis (who also brings sorely-needed base-stealing ability) to pair with Kim in left, then go after an everyday right fielder like longtime division rival Jose Bautista. Signing a versatile player such as Ian Desmond could check off a number of boxes — he could be shifted to right field for his regular position, while occasionally spelling Jones in center or Hardy at shortstop.
As I mentioned earlier, the Orioles aren’t likely to break the bank in free agency again, but perhaps they could afford to sign one big-ticket player and one mid-range free agent to fill some of these holes. Adding Desmond, Bautista or other free agents who reject qualifying offers would require the Orioles to surrender their first-round pick. Giving up what is currently the 23rd overall pick might not be a big concern since Baltimore could be getting two compensatory picks back for their own QO free agents in Trumbo and Matt Wieters.
Of course, the Orioles probably thought they had an extra pick coming their way last year before Wieters surprised many by actually accepting his one-year, $15.8MM qualifying offer. Wieters’ attempt at boosting his stock with a big platform year in 2016 didn’t entirely work out, as he managed to stay healthy but hit only .243/.302/.409 with 17 homers over 464 PA. Wieters may still be in line for a solid multi-year deal as the top free agent catcher available in the wake of Wilson Ramos’ knee surgery, or he could again choose to stay in a familiar spot and accept a large (if one-year) payday in the hopes that 2017 will be that long-desired platform year.
MLBTR’s Steve Adams recently outlined the pros and cons of issuing another QO to Wieters, as the Orioles have to weigh the risk of paying $17.2MM for a catcher who looked pretty average (or even on the decline) last season against the benefit of adding a draft pick if Wieters rejects the qualifying offer and departs. This one decision will have a big impact on the rest of Baltimore’s offseason moves; the club will have much less to spend on other needs if $17.2MM in payroll space is being used on Wieters.
If Wieters does leave, the Orioles will have a big vacancy to fill behind the plate. Caleb Joseph was tentatively set to be the 2016 starter before Wieters accepted the QO, though Joseph is no longer a regular option following a desultory season. Joseph hit a measly .174/.216/.197, recording such astonishing offensive lows as a 6 wRC+ and zero RBI over his 141 PA. At the very least, Joseph did provide good framing and defensive numbers, so he’s still in the mix as the backup.
Top catching prospect Chance Sisco may be ready to make his big league debut in 2017, though he’s still quite young (Sisco turns 22 in February) and still something of a defensive question mark. There’s no guarantee the O’s can count on Sisco even for Opening Day 2018, so they could need more than a one-year stopgap to start ahead of Joseph. The O’s could focus solely on defense by signing someone like Jason Castro, essentially punting on offense from the catcher’s spot since the rest of the lineup is so strong. Former Oriole Nick Hundley is another possibility, though Hundley is a defensive liability.
Longtime utilityman Ryan Flaherty could be non-tendered despite a pretty modest $1.7MM projected arbitration salary, as the O’s could probably re-sign Flaherty at a lower price. If Flaherty isn’t brought back, the Orioles will need a new backup infielder, though Machado’s ability to play both third and short gives them some flexibility.
Speaking of Machado, it seems likely that Duquette will again broach the idea of an extension with the 24-year-old this offseason. Duquette was rather circumspect when discussing extension negotiation plans with Machado, Tillman, Britton or Schoop, though of that group, there’s little question that locking up Machado is Baltimore’s biggest long-term priority. It would likely take well over $250MM to make a Machado extension happen given his age and spectacular track record, and that kind of expenditure could obviously impact how much the Orioles plan to spend on new talent this offseason. The O’s have quite a bit of future payroll flexibility, however, as Davis and O’Day are the only players committed money beyond the 2018 season. Like most extensions, a Machado deal may not occur or begin to be negotiated until after the rest of the offseason business is done, so we may have to wait until Spring Training for more news on the that front.
Beyond just helping to score a wild card berth, the Orioles’ spending spree of a year ago showed that Angelos is again ready to pay top dollar to retain and obtain talent. Baltimore doesn’t have as many key pieces hitting free agency this winter as it did in 2015, so this offseason’s most notable moves could consist of bringing some new faces to Camden Yards. The Orioles’ mixture of innings-eating starting pitching, sluggers and great bullpen work only got them so far in 2016, so some further roster maneuvering is still needed to keep the O’s in the playoff hunt.