Offseason Outlook: Baltimore Orioles

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Getting swept out of the ALDS by the Rangers brought a sour end to an otherwise very successful season in Baltimore.  The Orioles won 101 games to capture the AL East, and the best may be yet to come given all of the young talent still to emerge out of the loaded farm system.

Guaranteed Contracts

Other Financial Obligations

Total 2024 commitments: $5MM
Total future commitments: $8MM

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected 2024 salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Free Agents

The O’s turned the corner on their rebuild by winning 83 games in 2022, yet general manager Mike Elias has thus far taken a conservative response to his team’s breakout.  He still opted to sell at the 2022 trade deadline, yet the deals of Trey Mancini to the Astros and (especially) Jorge Lopez to the Twins now look quite shrewd in the bigger picture.  Elias then made mostly short-term moves last winter, adding Kyle Gibson, Adam Frazier, and Mychal Givens on one-year contracts and acquiring James McCann in a salary dump of a trade with the Mets.  Even at this past season’s trade deadline, with the Orioles posting one of baseball’s top records, Elias picked up the struggling Jack Flaherty rather than a more prominent starting pitcher.  As it turned out, Flaherty didn’t pitch well in Baltimore, and fell out of the rotation entirely by September.

The big question facing the Orioles this winter is simply, will Elias and team ownership get more aggressive in adding win-now pieces to what might be a burgeoning powerhouse?  Some caution was understandable after 2022 since Elias probably didn’t want to jump to conclusions that his team was ready to contend….yet a 101-win season now removes all doubt.

Baltimore’s rebuilding process led to a corresponding slash of spending, as the Orioles have been a bottom-four payroll team in each of the last five seasons.  As per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Orioles’ Opening Day payroll in 2023 was slightly under $61MM, and the second-lowest total of any team.  Based on their negligible long-term salary commitments and the projections of their arbitration-eligible players, the O’s have only $58.5MM lined up for their 2024 payroll, and even that number should be a bit smaller in the event of a few non-tenders from the arb class.

It’s worth remembering that during their last contention window in the mid-10s, the Orioles were regularly in the top half in league spending, and ranked as high as ninth in Opening Day payroll (a little under $147.7MM) heading into the 2016 season.  This doesn’t mean that the Orioles need to vault back up to that number over the course of one winter, but an argument can surely be made that Elias and the team have earned a larger investment in their on-field endeavors.

Unfortunately, ownership’s top priority right now might not be on the team itself.  The Orioles and the state of Maryland reached a “memorandum of understanding” in September that laid the groundwork for the O’s to remain in Baltimore for the next 30 years, in addition to a wider-ranging project that will see extra land surrounding Camden Yards be redeveloped into something of a ballpark village, akin to the Battery area adjacent to the Braves’ Truist Park.  While there seems to be an understanding in place between the team and civic officials that the deal will be completed soon, the fact remains that the agreement isn’t yet set in stone, even with the Orioles’ current least at Camden Yards expiring on December 31.

As such, it doesn’t seem like the player payroll will get any major boost until these future revenue streams have been firmly secured, or even until the revenues start rolling in for the team.  “I don’t think you should run losses.  I think you should live within your means and within your market,” club chairman/CEO John Angelos told the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner in August.  In regards to player salaries, Angelos explained “let’s say we sat down and showed you the financials for the Orioles.  You will quickly see that when people talk about giving this player $200MM, that player $150MM, we would be so financially underwater that you’d have to raise the prices massively.  Now, are people going to come and pay that?….But really that’s just one team. What I’m really trying to think about is macro.”

Angelos’ interview quickly became infamous among Baltimore fans, and may have halted any speculation that the team might pursue contract extensions with Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez, Jordan Westburg, or any other Orioles blue-chipper youngsters.  Or, that the O’s will make a big splash on a top-tier free agent this offseason as a veteran leader for its young core.  This doesn’t mean that the payroll won’t go up to some extent, as the Orioles did at least increase spending by around $17MM from 2022 to 2023.  But, if the front office is still being limited in what it can spend, Elias will have to get creative in adding some needed pieces to the roster.

The bright side for Elias is that his roster might already be pretty set.  The Austin Hays/Cedric Mullins/Anthony Santander outfield can return intact, Ryan Mountcastle and Ryan O’Hearn can split first base and DH duties with O’Hearn chipping in as a corner outfielder, Rutschman is locked in at catcher, Henderson will play every day at either third base or shortstop, and some combination of Westburg, Ramon Urias, and Jorge Mateo can handle second base and the other infield position that Henderson isn’t playing.

If this wasn’t enough, top prospects Heston Kjerstad, Joey Ortiz, and Colton Cowser all made their MLB debuts in 2023, and 2019 second-round pick Kyle Stowers is part of the outfield picture.  And if that wasn’t enough, the O’s also have Jackson Holliday (the top prospect in baseball) perhaps ready to make his debut as early as Opening Day, not to mention the likes of Coby Mayo, Connor Norby, Dylan Beavers, and Jud Fabian also knocking on the door for big league playing time.

Not all of these prospects will pan out, of course, and different rival teams undoubtedly have their own varying opinions on minor leaguers throughout the Orioles’ farm system.  But, it isn’t a stretch to say that Baltimore has the prospect depth to get involved in talks about almost any available trade target in baseball, thus giving Elias a way to add premium talent without spending big on a notable free agent contract.  In fact, the O’s could even explore adding a high-priced trade target and have the other team cover most of the player’s salary, provided the Orioles are willing to up the amount of young talent they gave up in return.

Likewise, the Orioles’ faith in their youngsters could also turn some of their own more experienced players into trade chips.  If the O’s think Mayo is ready to contribute right away in the corner infield picture, they could look to trade Mountcastle to a team in need of first base help.  If Westburg is seen as an everyday player and Holliday is coming quickly, one of Urias or Mateo could be dealt to an infield-needy club.  Kjerstad or Cowser might be able to step into an outfield role, thus making Mullins, Hays, or (most likely of the group) Santander available.

Santander’s projected $12.7MM arbitration salary puts him on pace to be the team’s highest-paid player in 2024, and he is set to enter free agency in the 2024-25 offseason.  As productive a player as Santander still is, if Baltimore doesn’t see him as part of the future, now might be the time to sell.

With so much position-player depth still in the pipeline, odds are that the Orioles will be wary about adding an everyday-type of player in trades or free agency, as they either don’t want to block a prospect at a certain position, or give up assets to address a position when an internal answer might already be in place.  One possible exception might be Aaron Hicks, whose path to re-signing with Baltimore might only come if one of the Santander/Mullins/Hays trio is traded.  Since the Yankees are still footing the bill on Hicks’ contract for the next two seasons, Hicks can sign for just a minimum contract in free agency, thus giving him the freedom to pick any contender he wants for 2024 or beyond.  Considering how Hicks revived his career after joining the O’s this year, one would imagine he’d certainly have interest in a reunion, and the Orioles might also see Hicks as a needed veteran voice if another outfielder was indeed moved.

If Baltimore does make a blockbuster trade this winter, it is much more likely that it will involve adding a starting pitcher.  To be clear, the Orioles’ rotation is only a weak link in relative terms — as MLBTR’s Nick Deeds recently observed, the pitching staff improved as the season went on, which augurs well for 2024.  The highly-touted Rodriguez got better and better during his rookie year, the O’s will have a full year of John Means now that he’s recovered from Tommy John surgery, and Kyle Bradish was quietly one of the better starters in all of baseball.

With this trio, the solid Dean Kremer, and Tyler Wells, Cole Irvin, Bruce Zimmermann, and DL Hall all battling for a fifth starter’s job, that’s not a bad amount of depth already in the fold.  And, of course, there’s some help on the farm, with Seth Johnson, Cade Povich, Chayce McDermott all likely to be in line for MLB innings next season.  However, even with the caveat that the Rangers’ mighty lineup can make a lot of pitching staffs look bad, the playoffs indicated that Baltimore doesn’t yet have a true frontline rotation.

Re-signing Gibson wouldn’t be too expensive a gambit, yet it can be argued that a mid-rotation arm who can eat innings might not be a priority considering how the rest of the staff developed.  For a division winner looking to contend for a championship, the Orioles could aim higher at a true ace.  Signing a Yoshinobu Yamamoto or a Blake Snell in free agency doesn’t seem feasible given how the O’s don’t seem willing to spend at that level yet, but the trade market presents some interesting options.

Corbin Burnes and Shane Bieber are widely seen as two of the winter’s prime candidates, as both pitchers are a year away from free agency.  Brandon Woodruff’s shoulder surgery might change the equation of the Brewers’ willingness to move Burnes, yet Milwaukee is always in need of the kind of controllable, MLB-ready young players that the Orioles can provide.  Bieber isn’t quite the clear-cut ace he was in his Cy Young-winning prime, yet he would be a nice addition to Baltimore’s rotation, and the Guardians are in sore need of hitting help (particularly in the outfield).  The question here would be how much would the Orioles be willing to give up for just one year of a pitcher’s services, if the O’s wouldn’t be open to re-signing either next offseason.

Tyler Glasnow, Zack Wheeler, and Max Fried are also pitchers slated for free agency after 2024, but they’re all less-likely fits for Baltimore.  While the Rays will probably be open to moving Glasnow’s $25MM salary, moving him to their chief division rival seems improbable.  The Phillies and Braves each have other rotation concerns this offseason that might preclude dealing an ace-level pitcher.

Moving onto more controllable arms, the Orioles still have lots of possibilities.  The Mariners would want the moon and stars to trade George Kirby or Logan Gilbert, but Baltimore’s galaxy of elite prospects would get their attention.  The White Sox want to return to contention next year but if their plans change, Dylan Cease could be available.  The Tigers’ collection of young pitchers have been hampered by early-career injuries, but could be on Baltimore’s radar since Detroit needs some bats.  The Dodgers have a lot of young arms who just made their MLB debuts in 2023, and if L.A. can obtain a veteran arm or two to shore up its rotation, the Dodgers could then address their needs around the diamond by discussing a swap of young pitching for young hitting with the O’s.

Baltimore’s pitching search may also have to expand to the bullpen, now that Felix Bautista will miss all of 2024 due to Tommy John surgery.  The superstar closer was a huge part of the Orioles’ success, and there’s no easy replacement even if Yennier Cano (or Danny Coulombe or Bryan Baker) could step into the ninth-inning role in 2024.  Trading premium prospects for relief pitching doesn’t seem too likely, in part because Wells or Hall might stick in the bullpen if they aren’t needed for rotation work, and because Elias has been so adept at finding and developing relievers.

While that knack for finding hidden gems isn’t easily replicated, the Orioles are probably more likely to again target relievers who haven’t quite emerged at the MLB level yet, despite some quality stuff and upside.  The O’s made such an acquisition in landing Shintaro Fujinami from the Athletics back in July, and while Fujinami didn’t pitch great in Baltimore, the club might consider bringing him back on an inexpensive deal for a second look.

All in all, the Orioles figure to be involved in any number of trade rumors this winter, as rival clubs will undoubtedly be coming calling about their prospects and Elias will surely make some inquiries of his own.  The success of the rebuilding project seems to have outpaced Angelos’ readiness (or willingness) to start boosting payroll, yet there’s no easier path to greater revenues than a championship-level team.  A spending increase to even the $100MM mark would give Elias all the more flexibility to add what might only be some finishing touches on a World Series contender.

In conjunction with this post, Mark Polishuk held an Orioles-centric chat with MLBTR readers.  Click here to read the transcript.

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