For the first time since 2011 (Buck Showalter’s first full season managing the club), the Orioles will post a losing record. While much of the offseason focus will be upgrading Baltimore’s lackluster rotation, the O’s also have some other holes to fill if they hope to return to contention in 2018.
1. Add some starting pitching. You could argue that the need for rotation help could account for all three entries on this list, given how long starting pitching has been a weak spot for the Orioles. The team already has plans to acquire at least two new arms to join Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman in next year’s rotation, though some creativity may be required in getting those new pitchers given that the Orioles are likely hesitant to deal any top youngsters from what is already a pretty thin farm system.
The O’s aren’t traditionally big spenders on free agent pitching, and Dan Connolly of BaltimoreBaseball.com recently observed that the failure of the Ubaldo Jimenez signing may have entirely hardened ownership against making any more long-term commitments to free agent starters. The Orioles’ notoriously stringent medical standards will also be an obstacle, given that several of the mid-tier names in this winter’s free agent pitching market (Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Jason Vargas, Tyler Chatwood, Jaime Garcia) have undergone Tommy John surgery.
Since trading prospects or making major signings could be difficult, the Orioles could instead add pitching by making a trade off the MLB roster. Brad Brach and Zach Britton will each become more expensive in their final years of arbitration eligibility, though Brach has the much lower price tag and more immediate value given Britton’s injury problems in 2017. Dealing a position player could be more difficult — Mark Trumbo is the only regular that seems expendable, though trade partners won’t be lining up for a player coming off a sub-replacement level season who is still owed $26MM through the end of 2019. Chris Davis’ big contract makes him immovable, and it seems doubtful that the O’s would move franchise stalwart Adam Jones or second baseman Jonathan Schoop, especially in the wake of Schoop’s best season yet.
2. Upgrade the defense. Baltimore was a below-average defensive unit in 2017 as per both the UZR/150 and Defensive Runs Saved metrics, so if obtaining top-ticket pitching help will be difficult, the Orioles could help their run prevention by improving the glovework.
Jones has graded out as one of the league’s worst defensive center fielders over the last two seasons, and it may be time for him to shift into a corner outfield role. Right field will be open if Seth Smith isn’t re-signed, which leaves center open for a new face. Lorenzo Cain stands out as the biggest name in free agency, with Carlos Gomez as an interesting Plan B-type of option if the Orioles didn’t want make a long-term commit to center field with top prospect Austin Hays on the cusp of regular duty. You could argue that Hays might be the best choice now, though since he has yet to play at the Triple-A level, it’s more likely he’ll start 2018 in the minors.
3. Figure out a future with or without Manny Machado. The star third baseman’s future is the biggest long-term question facing the Orioles, and it’s a given that the club will again discuss an extension with Machado as he enters his final season under contract. If the O’s feel Machado can be kept in the fold, that will have a big impact on the rest of the team’s spending this winter, since suddenly the Orioles will have at least $300MM in future commitments coming for Machado’s new deal.
According to recent reports, the O’s aren’t planning to trade Machado before next season, so that scenario seems to be off the table. That leaves the club in the rather precarious spot of risking seeing its best asset leave in free agency for nothing more than a compensatory draft pick after the first round in return, rather than the haul they could receive for even one year of Machado’s services in a trade. A Machado deal could be explored at the trade deadline, of course, though the Orioles obviously don’t plan on being deadline sellers next year. The worst-case scenario would be a repeat of 2017, as the O’s weren’t entirely out of the race and felt obligated to add at the deadline, only to see their chances fade in August and September. If the same occurs next year, the Orioles will have missed their window for moving Machado and other key impending free agents like Jones, Britton and Brach.