- Orioles outfielder DJ Stewart is also in danger of missing the start of the season, as a bad hamstring has kept him out of a proper Spring Training game since March 5. Stewart has been working out with the team, but manager Brandon Hyde told MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko and other media that he won’t put Stewart into a game until the outfielder is fully healthy, so “it’s becoming more and more challenging” to envision a scenario where Stewart avoids the IL. The former first-round pick has shown some solid pop over his brief MLB career, with 14 homers (and a .224/.334/.433 slash line) over 301 career plate appearances from 2018-20.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde issued a fairly encouraging update on right-hander Felix Hernandez, who left his outing Tuesday with discomfort in his pitching elbow. Hyde told Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com and other reporters that the issue is “just bothering him a little bit right now,” but there isn’t a timetable for his return. As of now, the Orioles have not scheduled any exams for Hernandez, a minor league signing who looked likely to win a season-opening rotation spot in the bigs before this injury cropped up. He should still be in position to start for the O’s this year if his elbow heals.
- After an ugly season with the Angels in 2020, righty Julio Teheran sat on the free-agent market until last month, when he settled for a minors deal with the Tigers. The 30-year-old has fared so well this spring that he’s on track to claim a spot on Detroit’s Opening Day roster. Manager AJ Hinch said Wednesday that Teheran is “getting pretty close to” earning a job, Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press relays. If the longtime Brave is able to pull that off, he’ll earn a $3MM salary this season.
- Righty Tanner Houck was among the players the Red Sox sent down Wednesday, leaving fellow RHP Nick Pivetta as a lock to open the season as their fifth starter, Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com writes. Pivetta, whom the Red Sox acquired from the Phillies last summer, endured his share of struggles during the first four years of his career, but he finished 2020 in encouraging fashion and has continued to turn heads this spring. Houck, meanwhile, was outstanding during a three-start, 17-inning major league debut last year, when he pitched to a near-spotless 0.53 ERA and struck out 33.3 percent of the batters he faced. However, unlike Pivetta, Houck has minor league options remaining – which surely impacted Boston’s decision.
- Even though Diamondbacks right J.B. Bukauskas flashed an impressive repertoire across four scoreless innings this spring, the club demoted him earlier this week. Agent Scott Boras took exception to the decision, per Zach Buchanan of The Athletic, saying “we all know it’s about service-clock issues” and adding that “We all know we’ll see J.B. on April 15.” Unsurprisingly, general manager Mike Hazen denied that service time was one of the causes for the move, claiming it had “zero” impact. Rather, according to Hazen, the Diamondbacks preferred to open the season with more experienced options in their bullpen. Manager Torey Lovullo does expect the 24-year-old to make his major league debut this year, though, “if he continues on the same path.”
- Angels righty Felix Pena is expected to miss two to four weeks with a Grade 1 right hamstring strain, Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com tweets. That should rule out Pena for the beginning of the season, which is a blow to the Angels’ bullpen. Last year, Pena threw 26 2/3 innings of 4.05 ERA/3.52 SIERA ball with above-average strikeout and walk percentages of 25.2 and 7.0, respectively.
Orioles right-hander Felix Hernandez exited his outing Tuesday with discomfort in his pitching elbow, Rich Dubroff of BaltimoreBaseball.com was among those to report. The Orioles will know more about the injury Wednesday after they re-evaluate Hernandez, Roch Kubatko of MASNSports.com tweets.
Despite a fantastic run with the Mariners from 2005-19, the soon-to-be 35-year-old Hernandez was only able to secure a minor league contract during the offseason. It’s the second straight minors pact for the former Cy Young winner, who inked a deal with the Braves heading into 2020. King Felix didn’t pitch at all last year, though, instead opting out because of concerns over COVID-19.
Hernandez is nowhere near the pitcher he was during his heyday, having combined for a 5.82 ERA in 227 1/3 innings during his two most recent seasons, but he does have a legitimate chance to earn a spot in Baltimore’s rotation if he’s healthy. Alongside Hernandez, John Means, Keegan Akin, Jorge Lopez, Dean Kremer, Matt Harvey and Wade LeBlanc are among O’s who are at least competing for starting jobs.
The Orioles have made a late addition to their infield via free agency, signing former Phillies and Royals third baseman Maikel Franco to a one-year, Major League contract. The O’s announced the move at the top of the hour, placing right-hander Hunter Harvey on the 60-day injured list with an oblique strain in order to open a spot on the 40-man roster. Franco, a client of Mato Sports Management, will reportedly earn $800K in guaranteed money with another $200K available via incentives and a trade assignment bonus being factored into the deal as well.
Franco makes a logical roster fit for the O’s, who had been otherwise slated to turn to Rio Ruiz at the hot corner. The 27-year-old Ruiz has just a .229/.299/.393 line across 617 plate appearances (84 wRC+) over the past two seasons. He has shown roughly league-average power (21 home runs, .164 ISO), but his on-base deficiencies and slightly below-average defensive ratings at third have left him hovering just above replacement level overall.
It’s reasonable to expect Franco to offer an upgrade on that production. The former Phillies top prospect showed flashes of promise in Philadelphia but never amounted to expectations. After being cut loose by the Phils, though, Franco posted a decent season with the Royals in 2020. He played in all sixty of Kansas City’s games (starting 51) and hit .278/.321/.457. As with Ruiz, low walk rates and batting averages on balls in play have led to on-base deficiencies. Franco, though, strikes out less often and has hit for more power than Ruiz.
Franco will be rather behind schedule at this point, so he may not be ready to step into the lineup on Opening Day. The two sides seemingly prepared for that reality, as MLB Network’s Jon Heyman indicated at the time of the agreement that Franco consented to being optioned to the Orioles’ alternate site early in the season, if need be, in order to continue ramping up. As a player with five-plus years of MLB service time, Franco can only be optioned to the minors with his approval.
Even amidst a full rebuild, there’s value for the Orioles in making improvements at the margins of the roster. Barring an unexpected breakout in 2021, it’d be hard to imagine Franco commanding a huge trade return. Still, should he sign, Franco would be a viable candidate to be flipped for something of future value at the deadline. Non-tendered by the Royals last fall, he’d surely come at a low cost.
Franco’s modest guarantee will have minimal impact on an already minuscule Orioles payroll. He’s promised a bit less than $300K more than the league minimum, pushing Baltimore’s payroll just beyond the $60MM mark, per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez. Franco joins shortstop Freddy Galvis (one year, $1.5MM) as Baltimore’s only major league free agent signees of the winter. It’s always possible the O’s could make another addition or two, particularly as veterans continue to opt out of minor league deals elsewhere around the league, but there’s no indication at this time that anything further is in the works.
As for Harvey, today’s IL placement is the latest setback for the now-26-year-old former top prospect. Baltimore tabbed Harvey with the No. 22 overall pick back in 2013, and he was at one point widely regarded as one of the game’s premier pitching prospects. Injuries have decimated his career to this point, and the O’s moved him to the bullpen in 2019, hoping the reduced innings total would help to keep him healthier. He’s pitched 15 innings out of the ’pen over the past two seasons, working to a 3.00 ERA with 17 strikeouts against six walks.
Harvey had been expected to be in the ninth-inning mix for the O’s in 2021, but that won’t be the case — at least not early in the year. The 60-day IL placement can only be backdated to three days prior to Opening Day, meaning he’ll miss at least the first 57 days of the upcoming season. Harvey could technically return by late May, then, but there’s no timetable for his return at the moment.
MLB Network’s Jon Heyman first reported that the two sides were in talks. MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko added that the Orioles had put a formal offer on the table. Heyman then reported the agreement and the terms.
- Hunter Harvey had been one of the few locks to start the season in the Orioles’ bullpen, but with his latest setback, opportunity knocks for another of Orioles’ hurler, per Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun. With so many roster spots still up for grabs, the Orioles could use Harvey’s spot to secure a job for another short-stint arm, like Cole Sulser, Dillon Tate, or Travis Lakins. But they could also take the opportunity to have yet another starter/piggyback arm on the roster. Even the Orioles’ likely rotation arms – John Means, Keegan Akin, and Dean Kremer – aren’t locks to pitch deep into games. Bruce Zimmermann seems a decent candidate to make the roster as a swingman – and a near lock to see time on the Major League roster at some point in 2021 – but he may need some help filling the middle innings. Tyler Wells would be one such candidate. A starter in the Twins’ system, Wells is a Rule 5 pick who needs to make the roster in order to stay in the organization.
Veteran outfielder Nick Markakis is calling it a career after 15 seasons at the Major League level, he tells David O’Brien and Dan Connolly of The Athletic. The 37-year-old says he made up his mind shortly after the postseason ended and did not pursue any opportunities this winter. “My No. 1 decision and my main focus on this is obviously my kids and my family,” Markakis said, adding that he’s both fortunate and thankful to have been able to play the game as long as he has.
The seventh overall pick back in 2003, Markakis spent fewer than three years in the minors before debuting as a 22-year-old and never looking back. He hit .291/.351/.448 in 147 games and finished sixth in 2006 American League Rookie of the Year voting with the Orioles, setting the stage for a nine-year run of strong play with the organization which originally drafted him.
Baltimore signed Markakis to a six-year, $66MM extension that covered the 2009-14 seasons, keeping him with the O’s for three would-be free agent seasons. Markakis helped the Orioles to playoff berths in 2012 and in 2014, and in total he posted a strong .290/.358/.435 slash through 5966 plate appearances as an Oriole, winning two Gold Gloves along the way.
Free agency took Markakis to his native Georgia, however, as he inked a four-year, $44MM contract to join an up-and-coming Braves club as their primary right fielder. He spent his next (and final) six seasons in Atlanta, batting a combined .283/.357/.402 and making his lone All-Star appearance with the ’18 Braves — a season in which he also took home a Silver Slugger Award and his third career Gold Glove.
Markakis was a workhorse both in Baltimore and Atlanta, averaging 151 games played from his 2006 debut up through the 2019 season. His only two injuries of note were a fractured hamate bone 2012 and a fractured wrist in 2019. He played in all 162 games of the 2018 season — one of seven seasons in which the ultra-durable Markakis played at least 160 games.
All in all, Markakis will wrap up his career as a .288/.357/.423 batter over the life of 9321 plate appearances. He racked up 2388 hits along the way, including 189 home runs, 514 doubles and 22 triples to go along with 66 steals, 1046 runs batted in and 1119 runs scored. Always somewhat of an under-the-radar star, Markakis derived much of his value from strong on-base percentages and terrific defense for much of his career — one that was valued at 28.7 wins above replacement by FanGraphs and 34 WAR by Baseball-Reference. Markakis earned more than $120MM over 15 seasons in the big leagues and will be remembered as a beloved member of two franchises.
- Orioles righty Hunter Harvey exited his outing Friday with a left oblique issue. The severity isn’t known yet, but Harvey – who had been in line for a bullpen spot – is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day, per Roch Kubatko of MASNSports.com. It’s the latest injury-related setback for Harvey, a 2013 first-round pick who has dealt with multiple health issues (including Tommy John surgery) during his professional career. The 26-year-old has totaled 15 innings out of the O’s bullpen dating back to his 2019 debut.
The Cubs have returned Rule 5 Draft pick Gray Fenter to the Orioles, per an announcement from Baltimore. The O’s have assigned the right-hander to major league spring training as a reserve.
Fenter was a seventh-round pick of the Orioles in 2015 who joined the franchise for a massive bonus ($1MM) relative to his draft position. While Fenter has since pitched to a 3.21 ERA and struck out over 10 batters per nine in 230 minor league innings, the 25-year-old hasn’t climbed above the Single-A level yet. He also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2016, wiping out that season and a large portion of the next year for him.
Fenter had an excellent year during the most recent minors season, 2019, when he logged a 1.81 ERA in 94 1/3 innings in Single-A. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen wrote last December that Fenter “sat 91-93 and touched 95” that season.
Free agent third baseman Maikel Franco is likely to choose his next club either today or tomorrow, tweets MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The former Phillies and Royals slugger has been connected to both the Mets and the Orioles over the past week, and Heyman now adds that the Braves are among the teams “in the mix” for Franco.
While Franco has been connected to three clubs over the past week now, there have been indicators that not every rumored club is a serious player for his services. The Athletic’s Tim Britton reported that although the Mets indeed checked in on Franco at one point, they also don’t believe a deal will come together at this time. Meanwhile, in the days since the Orioles were first tied to Franco, Baltimore general manager Mike Elias has publicly stated that he does not foresee any free-agent additions for his team (link via MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko).
“I don’t feel that there are any imminent additions at this time coming from the free agent market.” Elias said as recently as Wednesday. “That could change, but I don’t see anything kind of barreling down the pike here right this second.” Certainly, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that Franco could land there, but it does throw some cold water on the possibility.
Turning to the latest rumored fit, the Braves make some sense as a potential landing spot for Franco, although they’ve already added veteran corner infielder Jake Lamb to the third base competition. Lamb signed a one-year, $1MM contract earlier in the spring, and while the deal isn’t fully guaranteed, it did place him on Atlanta’s 40-man roster. That gives the Braves three possible options already, as Lamb joins holdovers Austin Riley and Johan Camargo in the mix for playing time.
Riley excited fans and the organization alike with a huge first month in the big leagues back in 2019, he’s struggled since that point. Over his past 380 Major League plate appearances, Riley has posted a .211/.274/.387 slash with a 31.1 percent strikeout rate. Add in last year’s postseason numbers, and the overall line dips to .207/.270/.371 in a sample of 429 trips to the plate. Camargo, meanwhile, turned in an impressive 2018 effort but has posted a dismal .222/.267/.378 slash in 375 plate appearances since. As for Lamb, his 2018-19 seasons were ruined by shoulder injuries, and he got out to a miserable start in 2020 as well. After being cut loose in Arizona and landing in Oakland, however, he looked like the Lamb of old in 13 games down the stretch with the A’s.
Riley is a former top prospect who won’t turn 24 until next month, so there’s still quite a bit of upside in the former No. 41 overall draft pick. Lamb gives the Braves upside as well. He belted 59 home runs from 2016-17 in Arizona and made the 2017 All-Star team. Camargo, at the very least, is a strong defender at the hot corner and a switch-hitter at the plate.
Franco could still fit into the mix, particularly if he’s open to a minor league pact. It’s also possible that the Braves aren’t thrilled with Lamb’s slow start this spring — he’s 1-for-12 with a walk and a HBP — and could look to pivot. Lamb could be cut from his non-guaranteed deal prior to Opening Day for $161K or $242K, depending on the point at which the club makes the move, although 14 plate appearances would be an extraordinarily brief audition.
Baltimore represents the cleanest and most obvious fit of the three teams rumored to be in the mix for Franco. Incumbent Rio Ruiz hasn’t hit much over the past two seasons and is out to a slow start in camp. He also has a pair of minor league options remaining. Prospect Rylan Bannon figures to eventually get a look in 2021, but he’s only played 20 games of Triple-A ball and could potentially benefit from some additional development time.
Franco was at least a mildly surprising non-tender by the Royals back in December, as he’d turned in a solid 2020 season and drawn public praise from both his manager and general manager. Appearing in all 60 games for Kansas City, the former top prospect posted a .278/.321/.457 batting line with eight homers, 16 doubles and improved defensive marks at the hot corner. The Royals, however, cut him loose and moved Hunter Dozier back to third base, opting instead to add several players to their outfield mix.
- Chris Davis has been down since last week due to a lower back strain, and Orioles general manager Mike Elias today told reporters that there’s still no timeline for when he’ll return to baseball activities (Twitter link via the Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli). He saw a specialist earlier in the week. Davis, who’ll turn 35 next week, missed the bulk of the 2020 season due to knee problems and was slowed by a hip injury in 2019 as well. He was likely ticketed for a somewhat limited role now, given the return of Trey Mancini and the emergence of several prospects at the MLB level (Ryan Mountcastle chief among them). With no timeline at the moment, it could be tough for Davis to be ready by Opening Day. The Orioles owe him $23MM in 2021 and 2022.