The Orioles announced several roster cuts Sunday, as Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com was among those to cover. Outfielder Austin Hays, who looked like a strong contender for a season-opening starting role, is the most notable player returning to the minors. General manager Mike Elias insisted service time didn’t factor into the decision, suggesting it’s irrelevant in Hays’ case because he already debuted in 2017, Kubatko tweets. Based on his spring, in which he put together a video game-like .351/.385/.892 line with five home runs in 37 at-bats, Hays deserved a roster spot in Baltimore. The promising prospect is coming off an injury-shortened season in which he posted underwhelming minor league numbers across 327 plate appearances, however. Per Kubatko, Hays and the Orioles believe there’s more for him to work on at the Triple-A level, where he hasn’t yet played. “I still haven’t played too many games in the minor leagues,” Hays said. “I haven’t had too many at-bats. I missed almost a whole year last year due to injuries, so there’s some time I need to make up.”
The Orioles offseason has consisted largely of the esoteric behind-the-scenes work being done by a newly-minted braintrust, offering the Baltimore fanbase little in terms of concrete evidence of a team on the rise. MLBTR readers rendered a decidedly nonplussed verdict of the O’s offseason by handing out a failing grade as the most common response in our Offseason In Review Series poll. Hope for an improved future for the AL’s foremost cellar dweller is dependent largely on conjecture tied to the resumes of the men brought in to run the organization, namely GM Mike Elias and field manager Brandon Hyde. The first significant evidence of Elias’ progress, however, is being seen all over spring camp, per MLB.com’s Joe Trezza. Spin axis seminars, high-speed Edgertronic cameras and “the long list of players championing the exposure to extra information they weren’t privy to before” are a few of the promising signs of growth coming out of O’s camp. Baltimore’s data infusion can be credited to new assistant general manger of analytics Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer and blackjack dealer whom Elias coaxed to Baltimore from their former employer in Houston. But that’s not all of the news coming from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia corridor…
- Hyde has already announced Alex Cobb as the Opening Day starter, but the only certainty beyond day one is the presence of Cobb, Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy in the rotation. In what order they’ll line up after Cobb, and who pitches in the fourth and fifth rotation spots is still very much up in the air, per the Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli (via Twitter). Using an Opener at times is definitely on the table, as is tweaking the rotation depending on the matchup. More clarity could come soon to O’s camp, as another round of roster cuts is planned for tomorrow, per Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com (Twitter link). Free agent signee Nate Karns certainly hopes to lay claim to one of those spots, but it’ll likely be a dynamic roster-crunching process in Baltimore right up until (and beyond, really) Opening Day.
- The names that will populate Baltimore’s pitching staff remain unknown, but for commentary on those auditioning, the Athletic’s Dan Connolly turned to Doug Brocail, Baltimore’ forthright, 51-year-old pitching coach. The challenge facing Brocail is developing a shared language for his staff, while finding new ways to communicate on an individual level. For example, in giving instruction to righty Jimmy Yacabonis, Brocail’s message to “Hold your posture” wasn’t registering. Recognizing the need to break though this particular platitude, Brocail conveyed his point this way, “Right at hill strike, then let the rotation of the other half take over,” and the message sunk in. Give Connolly’s conversation with Brocail a full read for more insight into the mind of the Orioles’ pitching coach, including his thoughts on Cobb, Bundy and Cashner.
- At the other end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez is grooming Wilmer Difo for a super-utility role in 2019, per Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com (via Twitter). This is not in response to the Michael A. Taylor injury, as there’s no plan at present to give Difo starts in center. Seeing some time in the outfield remains likely, as Difo boasts small-sample experience at all three outfield spots over the last two seasons. Difo will also likely serve as the team’s emergency catcher, a more pertinent responsibility on the Nats than most teams given Martinez’s stated desire to use the non-starter from the duo of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki as a pinch-hitter. Were Martinez to stick Difo behind the dish at some point during the season, the move would at the very least be on brand for a disciple of the ever-tinkering Joe Maddon.
The White Sox announced Monday that they’ve claimed left-handed reliever Josh Osich off waivers from the Orioles. In order to make room on the 40-man roster, Chicago has placed right-hander Michael Kopech on the 60-day injured list. Osich, 30, was designated for assignment by Baltimore last week. Kopech, meanwhile, is expected to miss the entire 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery late in the 2018 campaign.
Osich, 30, has spent time with the Giants in each of the past four seasons, though he’s struggled increasingly at the MLB level dating back to 2016. In 120 1/3 innings, Osich has a 5.01 ERA with 7.9 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, 1.50 HR/9 and a 51.8 percent ground-ball rate. Last year in Triple-A, Osich posted a 4.96 ERA with a 42-to-18 K/BB ratio in 45 1/3 innings.
Osich does have a minor league option remaining, and he’s also averaged roughly 95 mph on his heater throughout his career. Right-handed batters have owned him at the MLB level (.294/.385/.496), though he’s held lefties to a more manageable (albeit still unspectacular) .228/.319/.388 line in his time as a big leaguer. San Francisco designated Osich for assignment a month ago when they acquired young righty Jose Lopez from the Reds, after which he was claimed by the Orioles. Osich’s time in the Baltimore organization lasted only about three weeks, as the O’s designated him Friday upon picking up Dwight Smith Jr. from the Blue Jays.
- The Orioles would trade any of their starters who are “making significant money,” Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic writes in his latest notes column (subscription required). It’s hardly surprising that Baltimore would jump at the opportunity to shed the remaining $43MM (over three years) on Alex Cobb’s contract or the $8MM owed to Andrew Cashner this season, but Rosenthal also lists right-hander Dylan Bundy (earning $2.8MM) among the group. Moving Bundy would be more surprising given his affordable salary and remaining three seasons of control, though it seems unlikely they’d sell low on the former No. 4 overall pick after he led the Majors with 41 homers allowed last season. Bundy, 26, has demonstrated very appealing K/BB numbers over the past two seasons, but home runs have continually been a problem for him at the MLB level. A trade of any of the three seems extraordinarily unlikely to happen before Opening Day, but if any of that trio is performing well early in the year, he’ll emerge as a trade candidate this summer.
SUNDAY: The Dodgers have released Fields, Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register tweets.
THURSDAY: The Dodgers have claimed left-hander Donnie Hart off waivers from the Orioles, per an announcement from both clubs. In order to open a spot for Hart on the 40-man roster, Los Angeles surprisingly designated right-hander Josh Fields for assignment. The Dodgers will now have a week to trade Fields, release him, or pass him through outright waivers. Hart had previously been designated by the O’s when they re-claimed Hanser Alberto from the Giants.
Hart, 28, posted solid numbers for the 2017 Orioles when he worked to a 3.71 ERA with 6.0 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.03 HR/9 and a strong 53.1 percent ground-ball rate in 43 2/3 innings of work. That performance came on the heels of strong showings in Double-A and Triple-A, and it looked as if Hart was well on his way to cementing himself as a fixture in the Baltimore ’pen.
The 2018 season, though was demonstrably worse for Hart. While he tore through younger competition at Triple-A (2.41 ERA, 9.9 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 0.22 HR/9, 60.7 percent grounder rate), he was clobbered for 13 runs on 31 hits and 12 walks with 13 strikeouts in 19 1/3 frames at the MLB level. While it’s obviously a small sample of work, it seems that the new-look Orioles front office wasn’t overly impressed with Hart’s abilities. He has a minor league option remaining, which could serve the Dodgers well this year, given their penchant for cycling relievers back and forth between the Majors and upper minors in an effort to keep a fresh slate of arms available to manager Dave Roberts.
Designating Fields for assignment was unexpected both due to his regular-season results over the past couple seasons and due to the fact that the Dodgers had already agreed to a $2.85MM salary with the righty. That’s a non-guaranteed sum, as is the case with all arbitration contracts, but unless the Dodgers find a taker in a trade at that price point, they’ll be on the hook for one-sixth of that sum ($475K) even if they release him and get nothing for him. Fields has more than enough service time to reject an outright assignment, as well, so this seems quite likely to lead to either a trade or Fields becoming a free agent.
Since being acquired by the Dodgers, the 33-year-old Fields has tallied 117 1/3 innings of relief and pitched to a terrific 2.61 ERA with 8.8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 and 1.22 HR/9. He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, never more so than in 2018 (22.9 percent grounder rate, 51.4 percent fly-ball rate), but Fields averages nearly 95 mph on his heater with solid swinging-strike and opponents’ chase rates. Fields’ heater comes with a middle-of-the-pack spin rate, however, and his curve ranks in just the eighth percentile among MLB hurlers in terms of spin rate, though Hart’s breaking ball ranks even lower.
For one reason or another, it seems that the Dodgers don’t believe Fields to be capable of replicating his previous success. If that’s the case, though, it’s puzzling that they opted to tender him a contract in the first place.
- The Orioles, at the expense of international bonus pool space, have added outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. and right-handers Xavier Moore and David Lebron in three separate trades since Feb. 24. It’s a smart approach to improve organizational depth, observes MLB.com’s Joe Trezza, who points out the Orioles weren’t going to spend the money they gave up in those deals. With that in mind, rookie general manager Mike Elias essentially acquired Smith, Moore and Lebron for nothing, Trezza points out. Plus, even after making those trades, Baltimore still easily leads the majors in international cash – which should continue to give the franchise a clear advantage in the chase for Cuban shortstop Yolbert Sanchez.
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.
How would you grade their offseason? (Link for app users.)
The Orioles have acquired outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. from the Blue Jays, the Baltimore organization announced. International pool money will go to Toronto in return, with Scott Mitchell of TSN Sports tweeting the Jays will pick up half a million dollars in spending capacity. The O’s designated lefty Josh Osich to open a 40-man roster spot.
With the move, the O’s add an optionable 26-year-old player who has hit well in 104 MLB plate appearances. He owns a solid (albeit modest) .271/.354/.401 batting line in his 810 trips to the plate at the highest level of the minors. A left-handed hitting outfielder who can at least serve as a reserve in center.
It seems the Baltimore org had some competition for Smith, who was recently designated for assignment. The cost is relatively stout for an acquisition of a player out of DFA limbo. $500K in international spending availability is nothing to sneeze at in a world where hard caps tamp down the overall outlay. In this case, the O’s likely did not feel they had terribly productive places to invest their leftover funds, which were accumulated in an ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of top young international free agents Victor Victor Mesa and Sandy Gaston.
As for Osich, he’s the second southpaw removed from the Baltimore 40-man in recent days. The club lost Donnie Hart on waivers; it remains to be seen whether Osich will pass through. Now 30 years of age, Osich is looking to regain his form after a series of rough campaigns. He owns a 5.01 ERA with 7.9 K/9, 4.6 K/9, and a 51.8% groundball rate in 120 1/3 career innings in the majors.
- Orioles first baseman Chris Davis underwent an MRI on an ailing left hip that has kept him out of game action since Sunday, manager Brandon Hyde divulged to reporters (link via MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko). The test was described as “precautionary,” though, and Hyde indicated that Davis has been feeling better as the week has progressed. While spring stats don’t mean much, it’s hardly encouraging that Davis is 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts to begin Grapefruit League play. The soon-to-be 33-year-old turned in the worst season of his career in 2018, hitting just .168/.243/.296 with 16 home runs and a staggering 36.7 percent strikeout rate in 522 plate appearances.
- Right-hander Nate Karns is generally healthy but may not be stretched out in time to factor into the Orioles’ Opening Day rotation, per Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun. The Orioles’ lone free-agent rotation addition, Karns missed the 2018 season while recovering from 2017 thoracic outlet surgery. He’s made a pair of appearances this spring but only pitched one inning in his most recent outing, prompting new manager Brandon Hyde to cast doubt on Karns’ ability to start games early in the year. “We’re not going to put him in any position to get hurt, and we’re not going to try and push through any kind of injury or any kind of soreness right now,” said Hyde of Karns. Whether Karns will open the season in the ’pen remains to be seen, though it’s worth noting that he does have a minor league option remaining, so the O’s could potentially send him to Norfolk for a couple of outings to continue building arm strength.