We’re continuing with our “Three Needs” series, in which we take a look at the chief issues to be addressed for clubs that fell out of contention. The Orioles were about as bad as expected last year, but have plenty of possibilities in their second season under GM Mike Elias.
1. Go Wild On Pitching
The Orioles rotation was simply brutal in 2019, allowing more than two home runs per nine innings on average. John Means was quite effective but outperformed his peripherals by a wide margin. Dylan Bundy showed enough to keep hoping he’ll fully realize his talent. Otherwise … mid-season acquisition Asher Wojciechowski led the way with a 4.96 ERA in 16 starts. There were times where the organization had to scramble to find arms.
The Baltimore org should aim for better in 2020. To be fair, the O’s were hoping for much more from Alex Cobb and Nate Karns. And late-spring signee Dan Straily was worse than should have been expected. But there’s an argument to be made that the club should have been more proactive from the outset — and, more importantly, that it ought to be going forward. Given the state of the returning staff, which could include Cobb if he’s able to work back to health, there’s little choice but to add.
Notably, payroll is continuing to dive. There’s only so far to go while Cobb and Chris Davis are still on the books, but the O’s will start with just over $35MM in obligations before sorting out their arbitration situation. It’d obviously be foolish for the team to go splashing cash on veteran free agents, and attracting the most appealing buy-low candidates will be tough given the difficulties of pitching against AL East sluggers in Camden Yards. But there should be opportunities to acquire interesting pitchers via trade or signing, and the Orioles shouldn’t hesitate to commit a bit of cash to acquire some baseline competence and — perhaps — marketable trade assets. And the team should be exceptionally active in grabbing interesting arms from the waiver wire and minor-league free agent market.
2. Market The Middle Infielders
Jonathan Villar and Hanser Alberto both turned in high-quality efforts in 2019. The former checked in at about four wins above replacement thanks to otherworldly baserunning, above-average hitting, and solid-enough glovework at shortstop. He earned nearly $5MM last year and will get a raise, so he isn’t cheap, but Villar is a fascinating utility rental piece for a contender. As for Alberto, he glowed with the glove at second and made so much contact (9.1% strikeout rate, .305 batting average) that you can almost look past his awful 2.9% walk rate. With loads of cheap control (but no options) remaining, Alberto occupies a different but also useful space in the roster landscape.
To be sure, neither of these players is likely to draw a huge return. But it’d be rewarding to get something back for them after already enjoying their strong work in an otherwise largely miserable season. Cashing in now makes sense as well because it would clear the deck to take yet more risks on other middle infielders. The chief asset for a rebuilding team is its roster flexibility. Chasing upside makes sense; at the very least, the team can look for the next Villar or Alberto.
3. Extend Or Trade Trey Mancini
You hate to think about moving a homegrown star at all, but the Orioles need to be careful not to get stuck in the middle on Mancini. He’ll qualify for arbitration for the first time, with three more seasons of control before free agency. On the heels of a strong bounceback campaign (.291/.364/.535, 35 home runs), Mancini is peaking in value.
There have been prior rumblings of a possible extension. That is a strategy worth pursuing. Mancini is already 27, so he’s not exceedingly youthful. But the Baltimore organization will rightly want to keep at least one gate draw on the roster and can still hope that Mancini will be an important part of the club’s next contending outfit.
That said, the price really has to be right to do an extension. The Padres’ experience with Wil Myers provides something of a cautionary tale. If the O’s can’t strike a real bargain, they’re probably better off dangling Mancini to some of the many organizations that would love to install him as a centerpiece for the next three campaigns.