The final entry in MLBTR’s annual Offseason Outlook series is (obviously) rather late to the party this year. My apologies to Orioles fans for the delay. I made an error when we were determining who on the MLBTR staff would write which Outlook this winter, and the result was that the Orioles Outlook regrettably slipped through the cracks. Thankfully (or perhaps not if you’re an Orioles fan), it’s been a rather quiet offseason in Baltimore for the new front office thus far, leaving a pretty wide slate of possibilities to explore. Here’s a look at where things stand in Baltimore as a rebuild that has been a long time coming is in its nascent stage.
- Chris Davis, 1B: $92MM through 2022 ($6MM annually deferred, without interest, all the way through 2037)
- Alex Cobb, RHP: $43MM through 2021 ($4.5MM annually deferred through 2032)
- Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF/DH: $13.5MM through 2019
- Andrew Cashner, RHP: $8MM through 2019 (plus incentives; deal includes $10MM vesting option that will trigger with 187 IP in 2019)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
The Orioles won more games than any team in the American League over a five-year span from 2012-16, but even toward the end of that run, there were some cracks beginning to show in the foundation. The team’s core was largely headed for free agency at the same time, the rotation often appeared thin even when things were going well in Baltimore, and owner Peter Angelos made the bizarre decision to wholly ignore international amateurs in free agency (while simultaneously re-signing Chris Davis to an albatross contract), which didn’t exactly position his front office for long-term success.
The result was perhaps more catastrophic than even the most pessimistic observers could have forecast. Baltimore lost a stunning 115 games in 2018. Orioles pitchers yielded 270 more runs than the team’s feeble offense could generate. In the field, the Orioles’ collective -94 Defensive Runs Saved was the third-worst mark among MLB teams. Nearly anything that could go wrong in Baltimore did go wrong, and now-former GM Dan Duquette saw the writing on the wall this summer when he gutted the roster in advance of the non-waiver trade deadline. Gone were Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Kevin Gausman. Adam Jones, too, would have been shipped out had he not invoked his no-trade rights.
Months later, it’d be Duquette who was shown the door, along with longtime manager Buck Showalter, as Lou and John Angelos (the sons of Peter Angelos who have taken a prominent role in team control over the past year) opted to clean house from top to bottom. Newly minted general manager Mike Elias was plucked from an Astros organization that has long been on the cutting edge of data-driven baseball operations decisions, and Elias subsequently hired Brandon Hyde away from the Cubs (another progressive organization) as his new skipper. Former Astros executive Sig Mejdal has joined Elias in the Baltimore front office as an assistant general manager, while incumbent farm director Brian Graham and scouting director Gary Rajsich were ousted from the organization as well.
So where does the new-look front office turn as it looks to bring about the next wave of competitive baseball in Baltimore? Elias will no doubt be aggressive in adding to his analytics department, his international scouting staff and player development department as he looks to serve as the architect for a more modern organizational infrastructure. Most of those additions won’t be headline-grabbing news and won’t be of particular interest even to some O’s fans (let alone the broader base of MLB fans), but those will nonetheless be critical steps in a process that should span several years.
Looking at the roster, Duquette’s regime acted fairly aggressively in shipping out trade assets at the deadline, leaving the Orioles with few pieces to legitimately dangle on the trade market. Dylan Bundy would be of interest to other teams given his remaining three seasons of control, but he finished the season extremely poorly, and it doesn’t seem likely that the O’s would sell low on him. The last thing Elias wants to do as an incoming GM is to trade a longtime top prospect only to watch him break out in a new setting, and a strong first half or even a strong 2019 season on the whole would enhance Bundy’s trade value.
Alex Cobb also seems unlikely to be moved, with the $43MM he’s owed still looming large. Baltimore could perhaps eat a notable portion of that remaining sum in an effort to clear that ill-fated contract from the books, though that won’t be an easy sell. Cobb did pitch more effectively after the All-Star break, but his strikeout rate in the second half actually went down slightly (from 6.1 to 5.9 K/9) as his walk rate increased (from 2.3 to 2.7 BB/9). He allowed less hard contact and fewer home runs, but the O’s would probably need to eat half the contract to even find a taker. Andrew Cashner is a similarly unappealing trade asset, and if we were all impressed that Jerry Dipoto managed to shed the remainder of Robinson Cano’s contract, we’d have to consider it a legitimate miracle if Elias somehow found anyone to absorb a decent chunk of the Chris Davis contract. There may be a Trumbo taker out there if the Orioles agree to eat $9-10MM in salary, but the return wouldn’t be meaningful.
The O’s do have one particularly appealing trade chip, however, in the form of presumptive 2019 closer Mychal Givens. He may not be an elite reliever, but Givens is a hard-throwing (soon to turn) 29-year-old with three seasons of club control remaining and a strong 10.3 K/9 mark across the past three years. His 3.99 ERA in 2018 was elevated a bit due to a bizarre plummet in his strand rate (64.5 percent in ’18; 76.2 percent career), but Givens does an excellent job of limiting hard contact and missing bats. With a $2MM projected salary in arbitration, he’s affordable for any club in baseball and represents a nice alternative for teams that don’t want to spend $7-8MM+ on an annual basis for free-agent arms. There’s a glut of relief options available for now, but the O’s would be wise to float Givens’ name later in the offseason if there are contending teams who missed their top targets and are underwhelmed with the remnants of the free-agent class.
Frankly, though, the Orioles themselves should look to benefit from that swarm of relievers on the open market. Invariably, there’s a handful of solid bullpen pieces that is left standing each winter, and a rebuilding team like the Orioles is well positioned to add some bargains with an eye toward flipping them to contenders in July. While Baltimore surely wants to see what it has in younger relievers such as Tanner Scott, Cody Carroll, etc., there’s plenty of space in the bullpen to add a veteran or two while still leaving ample opportunity to evaluate in-house options.
The same should be true in the starting rotation. There’s zero sense in Baltimore doing something outlandish like signing Dallas Keuchel, of course, but there’s also good reason to roll the dice on a veteran starter who lingers on the market and is struggling to find a fit. If a Drew Pomeranz or Ervin Santana is available on a cheap one-year contract two months from now, signing a veteran bounceback candidate could eventually yield a summer trade chip and would create some depth to take pressure off younger arms like Josh Rogers, David Hess and Luis Ortiz (among others). At the very least, the O’s should be adding a fairly hefty number of pitchers, both starters and relievers, on minor league contracts with invites to Spring Training.
It’s a similar story in the lineup, where there are few established names. Trey Mancini will get another crack in left field (or at DH if the Orioles move on from Trumbo) and look to bounce back from a disappointing .299 OBP in 2018. Cedric Mullins will get a lengthy audition in center. DJ Stewart could get the same in right field, but there’s room for this team to add a veteran outfielder in the Jon Jay or Cameron Maybin mold for some insurance. The O’s are also the type of team that could afford to buy low on a bounceback candidate like Avisail Garcia in hopes of turning him into a prospect this summer.
Turning to the infield, Davis will be at first base and hoping to rebound to whatever extent possible from his disastrous 2018 struggles. Jonathan Villar could hold some appeal on the trade market after a solid run in Baltimore, but if he stays put, he’ll be in line for a middle-infield spot. His ability to play multiple positions should free up the Orioles to pursue veteran infielders on one-year deals and prioritize overall rather than pigeonholing themselves into finding one player at a specific position; a half season hitting homers at Camden Yards before being flipped to a contender might not sound like a bad plan for a rebound candidate like Brian Dozier, for instance. Renato Nunez may have been intriguing enough following his waiver claim (.275/.336/.445) to earn a longer look at third base. Rule 5 picks Richie Martin and Drew Jackson, too, could figure prominently into the infield mix since the Orioles know they won’t be contending anyhow. Behind the plate, Chance Sisco will eventually need to be given another chance to prove he can be the team’s catcher of the future, and the O’s have both Andrew Susac and Austin Wynns on the 40-man roster as backup options.
Outside of a few salary dumps and perhaps some bargain-bin shopping, it doesn’t figure to be an extremely active winter for Elias, Mejdal and the rest of the Orioles’ front office. It’s always possible that a newly hired executive will be surprisingly active — Jerry Dipoto wasn’t bashful about making trades immediately in Seattle, and A.J. Preller was hyper-aggressive in his first year on the job in San Diego — but the bulk of the heavy lifting from a trade perspective was already completed this past summer. There’s enough uncertainty on the Orioles’ roster that some short-term veteran additions should be expected, but the Angelos family hired Elias knowing that this rebuild was going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.