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With several key figures entering their final year under contract, 2018 could mark the end of this era of Orioles baseball. In order to go out in a blaze of glory, the O’s will need to address their rotation first and foremost, though other holes exist around the roster.
- Chris Davis, 1B: $115MM through 2022
- Mark Trumbo, DH/1B/RF: $26MM through 2019
- Darren O’Day, RP: $18MM through 2019
- Adam Jones, CF: $17MM through 2018
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Zach Britton (5.158) – $12.2MM
- Brad Brach (5.063) – $5.2MM
- Manny Machado (5.056) – $17.3MM
- Jonathan Schoop (4.027) – $9.1MM
- Kevin Gausman (3.151) – $6.8MM
- Caleb Joseph (3.145) – $1.4MM
- Tim Beckham (3.134) – $3.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: None
- J.J. Hardy, SS: $14MM club option for 2018 ($2MM buyout)
- Wade Miley, SP: $12MM club option for 2018 ($500K buyout)
- Welington Castillo, C: $7MM player option for 2018
- Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeremy Hellickson, Seth Smith, Ryan Flaherty, Pedro Alvarez, Craig Gentry
While the rotation has gotten much of the blame for the Orioles’ disappointing 75-87 record, it was far from the team’s only problem. The lineup hit a lot of home runs, but no club walked less or stole fewer bases than the Orioles. They also played below-average defense: Baltimore posted minus-17 Defensive Runs Saved and only the A’s had a lower UZR/150 than the Orioles’ minus-4.7 number. Even the O’s vaunted bullpen, such a strength in recent years, delivered just middle-of-the-pack results in most categories. Zach Britton’s injury problems were the culprit here, as Britton not only missed time but didn’t dominate nearly to the extent he did from 2014-16.
It all added up to a last-place finish in the AL East and a looming sense that it could be now-or-never for the Orioles in 2018. This could be the final season in Baltimore for Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Brad Brach and Britton. It’s worth noting, too, that both executive VP of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are entering the last years of their contracts. By this time next October, the Orioles franchise could be moving in a completely new direction.
Until then, however, the O’s are intent on returning to contention next year. One plus for Duquette is that he’ll have extra money to work with thanks to a number of big contracts coming off the books. Between guaranteed deals ($66.95MM) and projected arbitration figures ($55.1MM), the O’s have roughly $122MM committed to 11 players in 2018, and they still have six more expected contributors (Dylan Bundy, Trey Mancini, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Richard Bleier and Donnie Hart) on pre-arb deals. That works out to 17 players for approximately $125MM, so if the Orioles look to match their $164.3MM payroll from Opening Day 2017, Duquette has around $39MM in spending capacity.
Let’s start with the rotation, as the Orioles are looking to add two new starters to slot alongside Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Youngsters Castro and Gabriel Ynoa have been cited as rotation candidates, so let’s pencil in one of that duo (or maybe Alec Asher, Chris Lee, or Tanner Scott) for one of the three open spots. You could also see a veteran in the mix as a low-cost depth signing, potentially even a familiar face. While it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Baltimore move on entirely from the veteran quartet of Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley and Jeremy Hellickson (combined fWAR in 2017: -0.3), I could see the O’s bringing back Tillman as a nod to his long-time status as a reliable innings-eater prior to his disastrous 2017 season.
Jimenez’s four-year, $50MM contract was the largest deal the O’s have ever handed out to a pitcher, and since Jimenez failed to produce in three of those four years in Baltimore, it’s fair to wonder if owner Peter Angelos will ever again be convinced to make such an investment in a free agent arm. Given Duquette’s recent comparison of this winter’s pitching search to the 2011-12 offseason (when the club signed Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez), one would suspect that the O’s will indeed eschew big spending on pitching and rather seek out more modestly-priced options.
Duquette mentioned that left-handed starters were a priority, so names like Jason Vargas, Jaime Garcia, C.C. Sabathia or Miley stand out as potential targets. Other mid-tier pitchers like Tyler Chatwood, Andrew Cashner, Jhoulys Chacin, Trevor Cahill, or old friend Gonzalez are also available. A Jimenez-sized commitment wouldn’t be necessary to sign any of these arms. That said, several have significant injury histories, which will surely be of concern to a franchise that puts particular emphasis on pitcher health. Baltimore could also look to the major foreign professional leagues for a veteran, as it has quite a few times in the recent past (see, e.g., Chen, Tsuyoshi Wada, Suk-min Yoon, Hyun Soo Kim, and Logan Ondrusek). Japanese superstar Shohei Otani is the primary potential target, though he’d fit quite well on just about every team in baseball and we haven’t heard of the O’s being connected to him in particular. More likely, perhaps, the club could look at some of the other players that are under consideration for a move stateside after quality performances abroad, such as former big leaguer Miles Mikolas.
Duquette has frequently waited until later in the offseason to make notable moves during his Orioles tenure, so he could again be patient to see if any of these pitchers’ markets fails to develop, in order to swoop in for a bargain signing in February. It’s still possible, of course, that the organization could be more aggressive than usual — especially if Duquette feels his job is on the line and/or Angelos authorizes a different approach to take advantage of the remaining window of the club’s current core. The new rules regarding free agents who have rejected qualifying offers could also provide a wrinkle, as teams no longer have to surrender first-round draft picks for such signings. Losing international bonus money is hardly a deterrent to a team like Baltimore that doesn’t seem to care about the int’l market, so the Orioles could potentially be more willing than usual to spend on free agents.
Adding some big names and showing a long-term desire to contend could also help entice Machado into a long-term extension. Machado’s future is one of the major subplots of this Orioles offseason, as the star third baseman is on pace to land a $300MM+ contract in the ensuing winter (even in the wake of a somewhat disappointing 2017 season). As we’ve seen with Jones, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Darren O’Day in recent years, the Orioles have been willing to spend big to re-sign their own talent, though a Machado contract would be in another stratosphere of financial commitment.
The $161MM Davis contract is already looking questionable just two seasons into a seven-year deal, so it remains to be seen if the O’s are even willing to take another dive into the spending deep end. Jones is also the only one of the aforementioned re-signed quartet that was extended prior to actually reaching free agency, and the wait-and-see tactic probably won’t work with Machado given the large amount of interest he is expected to generate from some of the game’s biggest spenders. Of course, Machado himself may want to wait and see what happens with the Orioles’ front office and manager situations before locking himself into the team for a decade or more.
One option that isn’t on the table is a trade of either Machado or Britton. An injury-plagued season and a projected $12.2MM price tag would’ve limited Britton’s trade value anyway. Brach will again be a popular figure in trade talks, and it could make some sense for the Orioles to move one of their increasingly-expensive bullpen arms to free up a bit more payroll space. Britton’s health may make Brach too valuable for the O’s to move, though the team has shown a willingness to trade from its bullpen depth in the past (i.e. the Jim Johnson trade in 2013), plus some of the young pitchers that fall out of the rotation mix could be used as relievers.
Baltimore is definitely in need of some left-handed bats to balance out a heavily righty-swinging lineup, though they’re is pretty set at most positions around the diamond. Right field and catcher are the only true question marks since Seth Smith is unlikely to return and Welington Castillo is likely to decline his player option in search of a multi-year deal elsewhere. The O’s could decide that top prospect Chance Sisco is ready for regular big league action and platoon him with Caleb Joseph behind the plate, though a veteran could also be signed on a one-year stopgap deal if Sisco needs more time in the minors.
Right field could also theoretically be addressed internally, if Jones was to be moved over from center. Over the last two seasons, Jones ranks within the bottom six of all qualified players in baseball in terms of UZR/150 (-12.1) and DRS (-22). If Jones is open to a position shift, Baltimore could then sign a left-handed hitting center fielder — Jon Jay or Jarrod Dyson seem like good fits — to a short-term deal until top prospect Austin Hays is ready for regular action. Hays has already made his MLB debut and could be argued as a candidate for the 2018 lineup already, though since he has yet to play at the Triple-A level, it would be an aggressive move for a would-be contender to rely on such an unseasoned player out of the gates.
If Jones stays in center, then free agents Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson stand out as left-handed bats that could represent options. Granderson would require a shorter deal than Bruce, who is six years younger and will probably be looking for at least a four-year contract.
Beyond free agents, the Orioles could also fill their holes through trades, though dealing prospects seems unlikely given Baltimore’s less-than-overwhelming farm system and upcoming need for new core talent in the majors. A more inventive solution could be found in using some of that extra payroll space to take on a larger starting pitching or outfield contract from a rebuilding team.
While the Orioles might like to deal away some of their own larger contractual commitments, that’s likely easier said than done. Davis’s contract is one of the most problematic in all of baseball. Trumbo, meanwhile, is coming off a sub-replacement year and is owed $25MM through 2019, so the O’s could have to eat some money to deal him, or take on another highly-paid player coming off a poor season. Moving Trumbo would greatly increase roster flexibility, freeing up the DH position and opening a 25-man roster spot for a player with more defensive value, but at this point the Orioles will likely need to hang on to him and hope for the best.
The Orioles are a fascinating team to watch this offseason, as they possess a fair amount of payroll and roster flexibility for a team that is ostensibly in its last ride with this core group of talent. The emergence of Jonathan Schoop and Mancini as big lineup threats certainly provided a needed boost that offset down years from Davis and Trumbo, and provided hope that the O’s may not be as far away from contention as their last-place finish would indicate. Still, without some creativity in fixing the pitching staff, Baltimore’s longstanding rotation problems threaten to spoil another season.