The Orioles are still working through the ugly stages of a rebuilding effort, but could still be an opportunistic buyer of high-value talent.
- Chris Davis, 1B: $69MM through 2022 ($6MM annually deferred, without interest, all the way through 2037)
- Alex Cobb, RHP: $29MM through 2021 ($4.5MM annually deferred through 2032)
- Jonathan Villar (5.113) – $10.4MM
- Mychal Givens (4.069) – $3.2MM
- Dylan Bundy (4.026) – $5.7MM
- Hanser Alberto (3.085) – $1.9MM
- Miguel Castro (3.079) – $1.2MM
- Richard Bleier (3.074) – $1.1MM
- Trey Mancini (3.015) – $5.7MM
- Non-tender candidates: Villar, Castro
There’s not a lot to love about the MLB roster in Baltimore, and the few established pieces look like trade candidates. That makes for a freewheeling situation for still-fresh GM Mike Elias, who has loads of roster and payroll flexibility to work with.
The Orioles aren’t obligated contractually for very much spending, but the promises they do have out — to Chris Davis and Alex Cobb — are near-complete write-offs. That’s not to say that a turnaround is impossible to imagine in either case, though it’s tougher to envision for Davis. (Whether and when he’s cut loose may be an ownership call.) The O’s will hope that Cobb can function as an important part of their 2020 pitching mix and perhaps ultimately be dealt. But it’s nearly impossible to imagine either contract being movable this winter.
Things begin getting interesting from a transactional perspective when you look down the list of arbitration-eligible players. I’ve recently suggested Jonathan Villar as a trade candidate. But my eyes bulged when I saw his arbitration projection. It’s tough to see Villar as a highly appealing trade candidate at that price. The O’s may well be better served letting him go test the market while reinvesting the cash on other opportunities. Hanser Alberto is an easier piece to move, though the Baltimore organization may also prefer to maintain the middle-infield stability if nothing interesting is offered up (especially if Villar is sent packing).
With little in the way of player-contract trade capital, Elias and co. have surely dedicated a good amount of thought and analysis to a trio of fairly intriguing, homegrown players. First baseman/outfielder Trey Mancini is the organization’s best hitter and current flag bearer. Righty Dylan Bundy is still youthful and possesses relatively rare swing-and-miss stuff for a starter. And reliever Mychal Givens has an electric arm, though as with Bundy that hasn’t always translated to results. It’s not hard to imagine each of these players drawing trade interest from various other organizations. None is dirt cheap or without his warts, but each now has ample MLB experience and an appealing skillset.
The O’s really can’t afford to cling onto Mancini, Bundy, and Givens with the idea that they’ll help spring a return to contention. But there’s also not much reason to sell these players off just to make a move. In concept, they’re the organization’s slugger, ace, and closer; the team needs gate draws and some baseline competence. And it can certainly hope that some or all kick up their value during the first half of 2020.
There’s also another possibility here, mostly with regard to Mancini. As the 27-year-old bounced back from a messy 2018 effort, chatter increased about a possible extension. There’s not a huge amount of appeal in promising big cash for the late-arbitration and early-free-agency seasons of a good-but-not-great corner outfielder who is in sight of his thirties. But it’s not impossible to imagine the O’s being willing to offer a reasonable sum to entrench Mancini as a holdover star and bridge to their next contending outfit.
Supposing Mancini remains on hand, the O’s may soon have a nice power duo taking aim at the readily assailable walls of Camden Yards. Top prospect Ryan Mountcastle, another first base/corner outfield option, is probably as ready as he’ll ever be after a nice Triple-A season. (Though he may still remain in the minors for a few weeks out of camp owing to service-time considerations.) Mountcastle doesn’t walk much at all and has not stuck at more valuable defensive positions, but remains a well-regarded prospect with the bat.
Between those two, Davis, and DH/corner infielder Renato Nunez, the Orioles are covered in the defensively limited slugger department. They’ve got a decent number of outfield possibilities as well, limiting the likelihood that the organization will target players who do their defensive work on the grass. Up the middle, the team does have a pair of possibilities in Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins. Former Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander probably deserves a longer look in a corner capacity, while DJ Stewart and Dwight Smith Jr. are other options.
Speaking broadly, there isn’t a need to address this area of the roster. But the O’s could surely make room if a particularly interesting opportunity arises and will at a minimum consider bringing in some veteran camp competition. Another spot that’s even less in need of tinkering is behind the dish. Chance Sisco and Pedro Severino form a solid, cheap, and youthful duo that can be supported with minor signings. Recent top overall draft pick Adley Rutschman won’t be rushed, but isn’t expected to take much development time.
The 4-5-6 places in the lineup are a source of greater intrigue — particularly if, as noted above, Villar and/or Alberto end up on the move. The club held onto Rule 5’er Richie Martin all season long to gain his rights permanently, but Martin is almost certainly due for a much-needed stint in the upper minors. There’ll likely be at least one middle-infield opening. At the hot corner, Rio Ruiz is still just 25 and picked up the pace offensively in the second half. But he’s not a slam-dunk to hold down the position all year long. Fortunately for the Orioles, there are loads of second and third-base types floating around this year’s free agent market. The Baltimore organization could pick a buy-low target, hunt for younger players that shake loose, or even consider taking on an unwanted contract from another team as part of a larger trade.
All of that is prelude to the area of primary focus this winter for the Baltimore front office: the pitching staff. On the one hand, the situation presents an unquestionable jam. The Orioles’ pitching staff was altogether brutal in 2019, easily lagging the rest of baseball with a collective 5.67 ERA and eye-watering 1.90 home runs per nine. There’s no spending your way out of that. On the other hand, these O’s won’t be competitive and don’t need to be. They ought to have plenty of cash to put to work if they see interesting opportunities to add. And while Camden Yards (and the AL East) make for a deterrent to potential bounceback pitching targets, the Orioles can promise ample opportunity to hurlers that need a chance to get their careers back on track.
The rotation is a particular need. John Means was a major bright spot in 2019, turning in 155 innings of 3.60 ERA ball, but some ERA estimators were very down on his underlying performance (5.48 xFIP; 5.02 SIERA). Bundy is a useful pitcher that still may have a bit of upside, but he has yet to put it all together. Perhaps Cobb can bounce back after hip surgery, but he’s a total wild card. There are a few notable farmhands that could be possibilities — Hunter Harvey (who debuted last year in a relief role), Keegan Akin, Zac Lowther, Dean Kremer, Michael Baumann, Cody Sedlock — but the O’s will take the long view on them and can’t be sure what to expect.
It seems reasonable to anticipate some additions to that unit — perhaps reasonably significant ones. Asher Wojciechowski and Gabriel Ynoa were among the pitchers that gave the Orioles some innings last year; they and others remain available. But it’s fair to presume the club would rather be trotting out other hurlers while also avoiding some of the scrambling that was needed this year. When it comes to open-market and/or trade targets, Elias and company arguably ought to aim higher than they did last winter with Nathan Karns and Dan Straily.
The bullpen isn’t much different, except that it’s much easier to throw a bunch of arms at the situation — particularly with all the names just noted floating around. But there, too, there’s cause to think that some veteran supplementation would help, especially if Givens ends up on the move. Attracting decent bounceback candidates may be even tougher in the relief realm, but offering an MLB contract and late-inning role can do wonders.
If 2019 was mostly about landing Rutschman and overhauling the organizational structure to suit Elias’s vision, then how about 2020? Well, the club will be picking second in the coming draft and can surely look ahead to another lofty pick in 2021. But now’s also the time for the new front office to make shrewd assessments of its own sub-elite prospects, identify some diamonds in the rough, and perform the kinds of subtle roster tweaks that can make a big difference down the line.