There’s no end to the lockout in sight, but all 30 teams — even those who aren’t/weren’t planning to be overly active in free agency — will have to work at an accelerated pace coming out of the lockout. With that in mind, Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com takes a look at what’s typically a busy month for the Orioles, who in recent years have been quite active in February. Beyond recapping some of the team’s February dealings in recent years, Kubatko suggests that the O’s are likely to pursue additional depth both behind the plate and in the starting rotation.
Baltimore has already added a pair of catchers on minor league deals this winter, signing both Anthony Bemboom and Jacob Nottingham (an Astros draftee during current Baltimore GM Mike Elias’ first season as scouting director in Houston). Elias “isn’t averse” to a big league deal for another catcher, per Kubatko, though what was already a thin market for veteran backstops has been largely picked over.
Of course, given that the Orioles are widely expected to give 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick Adley Rutschman his MLB debut at some point in the 2022 season, any catching additions would only be in the backup mold anyhow. Veterans such as Robinson Chirinos, Kurt Suzuki and Austin Romine are among the yet-unsigned backstops awaiting the lockout’s resolution, and any would ostensibly make sense as an early-season starter to hold the fort down until Rutschman debuts.
Rutschman, the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball according to both Baseball America and Keith Law of The Athletic, is fresh off a season in which he posted a combined .285/.397/.502 with 23 homers, 25 doubles and a pair of triples in 543 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A. The switch-hitter, who’s set to turn 24 this weekend, is arguably ready for a big league look right out of the gate, though most teams tend to delay the debuts of prospects of this caliber in order to secure an additional year of club control.
As currently constructed, the service time system would only require the O’s to keep Rutschman in Triple-A for just over two weeks in order to push his entry into the free-agent market back from the 2027-28 offseason to the 2028-29 offseason. It’s a natural call for a front office from a business standpoint, but the simplicity with which teams can delay a top prospect’s free agency is one of the many topics the MLBPA sought to discuss heading into labor negotiations this winter.
On the pitching side of things, the outlook is far more open. The O’s do still have a pair of highly touted top prospects — righty Grayson Rodriguez and lefty D.L. Hall — who could debut in 2022, but the current lack of depth could create opportunities. John Means and veteran Jordan Lyles, who agreed to a one-year deal just before the lockout, are locks for rotation gigs early in the season. Beyond that pair, Baltimore has already gotten looks at Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann, Keegan Akin, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and (briefly) Mike Baumann in the big leagues. Prospect Kyle Bradish had a nice 2021 season between Double-A and Triple-A as well.
The O’s aren’t necessarily lacking options, which is likely why Kubatko suggests that any veteran additions at this point would likely be on minor league deals with non-roster invites to camp. The O’s have worked out such deals regularly in recent years (e.g. Matt Harvey, Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone), and at least one more addition along those same lines would further deepen the pool of rotation candidates and help to keep the team from overworking up-and-coming arms. Such signings can also net trade candidates at the deadline, and if the player in question has fewer than five years of MLB service (Jakob Junis, for example), there’s always the possibility of retaining them via arbitration next winter — should things go well.
There’s also plenty of fluidity in the infield, where the O’s are currently looking at some combination of Rougned Odor, Jahmai Jones, Ramon Urias, Kelvin Gutierrez, Rylan Bannon and Jorge Mateo to shoulder the load at second base, shortstop and third base. There’s ample room for a veteran addition here, but it’s worth noting that the largest deal for a free-agent position player under Elias has been Jose Iglesias’ $3MM deal prior to the 2020 season. A large splash isn’t likely, even if the O’s are currently only projected for a payroll in the $60MM range.