This is the latest post of MLBTR’s annual Offseason in Review series, in which we take stock of every team’s winter dealings.
After the worst season in franchise history, the Orioles’ only must-have for the winter was new organizational leaders.
Major League Signings
- Nate Karns, RHP: One year, $800K, up to $200K more in incentives
- Total spend: $800K
Trades and Claims
- Selected SS Richie Martin from A’s with 1st overall pick in Rule 5 Draft
- Acquired IF Drew Jackson from Phillies for international signing bonus pool money after he was selected from Dodgers with 11th overall pick in Rule 5 Draft
- Acquired outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. from Blue Jays for $500K in international signing bonus availability
- Selected RHP Taylor Grover from Reds with 1st overall pick of Triple-A phase of Rule 5 Draft
- Claimed IF Jack Reinheimer off waivers from Rangers
- Claimed 3B Rio Ruiz off waivers from Dodgers
- Claimed IF Hanser Alberto off waivers from Giants (first, from the Yankees)
- Claimed LHP Josh Osich off waivers from Giants (later designated for assignment)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Alcides Escobar, Eric Young Jr., Jesus Sucre, Carlos Perez, Christopher Bostick, Zach Vincej, Omar Bencomo, Gregory Infante, Josh Lucas, Jace Peterson, Bo Schultz
- Adam Jones (still unsigned), Caleb Joseph, Tim Beckham, Lucas Luetge, Pedro Alvarez, Colby Rasmus (still unsigned)
The Orioles as we’ve known them are no longer. General manager Dan Duquette – hired in 2011 to replace Andy McPhail – is gone. Manager Buck Showalter – hired after the All-Star break in 2010 – is gone. Franchise cornerstone Manny Machado – drafted in 2010, in the majors since 2012 – plays in San Diego now. Adam Jones’ tenure was longer than all of those departees; after 11 seasons in Baltimore, he, too, has (likely) played his last game as an Oriole. Four cornerstones from the past eight-or-so seasons, all jettisoned during a four-month period between July 18th and November 3rd – so it’s understandable if those in Baltimore are still feeling a little shell-shocked.
The GM seat remained empty for a curious-long while, but in mid-November Mike Elias finally arrived from Houston. By all accounts, Elias is a good hire, and there’s no reason to think he won’t accomplish at least their infrastructural goals: modernize front office processes, broaden the reach of player acquisition efforts and get the analytics department up to code. Four weeks in, Elias checked the first box of his offseason to-do by hiring Joe Maddon’s bench coach Brandon Hyde as the 20th manager in franchise history. In poaching Elias (from the Astros) and Hyde (from the Cubs), the Orioles now boast a leadership tandem – not coincidentally – from the two most recognizably-successful rebuilding efforts of the last decade.
In terms of player personnel, there really wasn’t much to be done at the outset of Elias’s tenure. With no hope of contending in the near future, filling out roster holes was not a terribly consequential undertaking. The club unsurprisingly pursued a mix of interesting younger players and cheap but solid veteran types to bolster an existing mix that still includes several high-priced holdovers.
If you like underdogs, this shortstop competition is a barnburner: two Rule 5 picks trying to make the jump from Double-A (Richie Martin, Drew Jackson), while minor league signee Alcides Escobar sets the bar. It’s been three years since Escobar produced more than 1 WAR over a season, and he’s never-not-once produced an even league-average wRC+, but he’s a “been-through-the-trenches” guy, he runs the bases well, and he generally won’t fumble the ball when it’s hit right at him. Eric Young Jr. is the best bet of the other minor league signees crack the roster, and he’s off to a good start this spring as he competes for a bench role with Joey Rickard and a slew of IF/OF opportunists like Rio Ruiz, Jackson, Jace Peterson, Steve Wilkerson, Christopher Bostick and Anthony Santander.
On the pitching side, Karns was a nice addition for a rotation lacking depth behind Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner, and Alex Cobb. Karns hasn’t pitched in a year-and-a-half, but last we saw him he looked good for the 2017 Royals, striking out 10.13 batter per nine while pitching to a 4.17 ERA (4.48 FIP, 3.71 xFIP). The Orioles get him for $800K this year – the only guaranteed salary the team handed out – and he’s under team control for 2020, making this a pretty good buy for Baltimore.
With new leadership in place, the encyclopedic reshaping of the Orioles begins, but there are questions in the short-term that loom even larger (in urgency, if not importance). For instance, how many more chances are they willing to give Chris Davis to get within shouting distance of league-average before donating his roster spot to a youth? Four seasons at $23MM a pop is a lot to eat, but there is a sunk cost threshold, and after a .168/.243/.296 -2.8 rWAR season in 2018, that line can’t be far off.
It seems almost silly at this point to ask whether Davis could regain enough of his former on-field value to allow the team to shed some of his remaining contract. Perhaps that’s still possible, though. And the O’s can hope more realistically that some other players will perform well enough to dump salary during or after the season to come. Bundy, Cashner, and Cobb could all be of mid-season interest. Jonathan Villar and Mark Trumbo might end up holding some appeal. And relievers Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier (if he can get back to health) could be fairly significant assets. There’s not a primo trade piece in the bunch, save maybe Givens, but it’s fair to wonder how long Elias will wait before stripping this team for parts.
Otherwise, the open questions facing this roster are largely those you’d expect from a team in this position. The roster is loaded with players who have yet to establish themselves fully (if at all) in the majors. In most cases, it’s understandable that the organization has decided to allow some space for young players to sink or swim. There’s an argument to be made, though, that more could have been done in the rotation — particularly since Karns has a checkered recent health history.
Mike Wright Jr. looks poised to snag a starting spot, but it’s a little curious the O’s didn’t further explore the bargain bin, especially given their lack of near-term upside arms. David Hess, Yefry Ramirez, John Means, Josh Rogers and Jimmy Yacabonis will happily take the innings, but there’s value even in a rebuild to having vets around. Bounceback candidates such as Drew Pomeranz may have shied away from Camden Yards, but giving a minimal guarantee to someone like Ervin Santana (who settled for a minors deal) might have made sense. Even now, James Shields, Bartolo Colon, former Orioles Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez, and others are all just a phone call away.
It would be hard to blame Elias and his staff for seeking some time to evaluate the in-house goods before running out for upgrades that admittedly wouldn’t move the needle. The longer-term questions are of greater importance, and they relate to roster building strategy. The Orioles’ lack of existing international relationships hampered Elias’ ability to put to use their approximately $6MM in international bonus pool money, which they’ve instead doled out piecemeal through trades with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, and Blue Jays. The development of those overseas connections will be worth tracking in the long-term, while a push to attain Cuban shortstop Yolbert Sanchez would be a nice short-term success were Elias to get him. An early decision point will come in June, when the Orioles make the first overall selection in the amateur draft. Whether it’s high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman or someone else, this is the first major test that Elias and company need to ace.
What to Expect in ’19
On the field, these Orioles aren’t likely to dent the 60+ game gap between themselves and the AL East leaders. Fangraphs projects only the Marlins to finish with a worse record, though they’re not exactly bullish on the Orioles either, pegged for 99 losses and a league-worst run prevention effort. There’s a decent collection of position player prospects who are or soon will be knocking at the MLB door – Yusniel Diaz, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna – but there’s absolutely no rush. In the meantime, Cedric Mullins, Richie Martin, Chance Sisco, Drew Jackson and DJ Stewart should have plenty of leeway to grind through any growing pains. It’ll be a year of tryouts as Hyde hammers the fundamentals and dreams of a future roster filled with athletic, positionally-flexible dirt dogs. Brass tacks: the Orioles are going to lose a lot of baseball games in 2019. Maybe not 115, but the over-under for 2020 draft position should be no higher than 1.5.
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