While much of the attention of the Orioles’ 2018 FanFest was on those who declined to attend, there were a few notable story lines. Here’s a look at a few:
The Orioles boxed themselves into a corner with Manny Machado — and know it
It’s no secret that Manny Machado, who’s entering his final season before free agency, has likely priced himself out of the Orioles’ comfort zone. He’ll be hitting the market at age 26 and already has three All-Star appearances, three top-10 MVP finishes and two Gold Glove awards on his mantel. He could command close to $300 million from deeper-pocketed teams in free agency, which would mean 2018 is almost certainly his last year in a Baltimore uniform.
Club Vice President Brady Anderson said Saturday he thinks the Orioles could have avoided Machado’s impending departure by signing him to an extension earlier in his career, before he’d racked up so many accomplishments.
“We might have just not come up with quite enough [money] years ago,” Anderson said. “Personally, I think it’s a bit of a losing game to chase your own free agents around. But certainly, retrospectively, you think, could we have given him more early on and had him for two or three more years? I think the best time might’ve been right after his second knee surgery [in 2014], when maybe he was feeling a little unsure of his own future.
“But once a player gets close to free agency like Manny has, he’s put in the work, he’s established himself as the elite of the elite, you have to test free agency. You have to see what’s out there. And once you do that, and other teams start bidding against each other, sometimes the price just becomes untenable.”
It’s hard to argue with Anderson’s reasoning. It seems the Orioles could have been more proactive in locking up Machado years ago, when they wouldn’t have had to bid against anyone else for his services.
It’s a course of action that plenty of successful teams have taken with their young stars. The Los Angeles Angels, most notably, agreed to a six-year, $144.5 million extension with Mike Trout in March 2014, after his second full MLB season. Thanks to the Angels’ foresight, they now have the best player in baseball under contract through 2020. Without the extension, Trout would’ve been eligible for free agency this offseason, likely earning a record-breaking contract on the open market.
Executive Vice President Dan Duquette said earlier this winter that the Orioles haven’t discussed a long-term agreement with Machado in “a couple of years.” We don’t know the specifics of any contract talks the club might have had with Machado previously, but the notably risk-averse Orioles’ ownership might have been hesitant to guarantee him big money after he had surgeries on both knees in 2013 and 2014.
In hindsight, though, the club likely could have kept Machado in Baltimore for a reasonable price if it had acted earlier.
The Orioles weren’t willing to take that gamble. And now they’re paying the price.
Nobody knows what to make of the slow free agent market
The Orioles have been dormant this winter, adding only one player with major league experience to the 40-man roster (reserve outfielder Jaycob Brugman, who was acquired from the Oakland Athletics in November).
But the Orioles aren’t alone in their inaction. The MLB hot stove has gone ice cold this winter, with many prominent free agents still unsigned with less than a month until spring training begins.
“It seems like the market’s a little bit odd in free agency,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of starters out there who aren’t getting the offers, it seems. It’s probably been the oddest offseason that I can remember as far as free agent signings, who’s got the deals and who hasn’t. … Just the lack of signings for some of these big names is sort of unprecedented in my memory.”
“In terms of the free agent market, I don’t know what’s going on. I have my theories,” said veteran righty Darren O’Day. “I guess the silver lining is we’re probably not the only team in that situation. Nothing’s moved. So, I think that’s going to start happening here soon.”
The Orioles, during Duquette’s reign, have typically been one of the slowest moving teams in the offseason, even in years where the market is busier. They often prefer to wait until the final weeks and look for bargains. So, the good news about this slow market is that there are more players than usual still available. On the other hand, there are still plenty of teams with holes to fill, which could make it harder for the Orioles to land their targets.
“We still have some work to do, obviously, in the market to staff our team for this season,” Duquette said. “The key will be addressing the starting pitching. If we can do that, and I’m confident we can — don’t ask me how, exactly — but if we can do that, we can have another good season.”
Zach Britton could contribute sooner than later
The Orioles suffered a costly blow this offseason when closer Zach Britton ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in December while working out.
Britton’s injury initially was estimated to sideline him for six months or more. Britton, though, said during a conference call at Fanfest that he’s making good progress in his recovery and could be back sooner than expected.
“I’m feeling really good,” Britton said. “I saw the doctor again for my second follow-up of three follow-ups that I’ll have, and he was really happy with where I’m at. Maybe a little ahead of schedule. Not skipping any steps, but just picking up the pace on things that I’m doing now. More walking, getting comfortable in a tennis shoe again, and things like that.”
Britton will be at spring training with the Orioles in Sarasota, although he won’t be full-go.
“I see the doctor one more time on Feb. 9th, and then I’ll fly out right after that to Sarasota,” Britton said. “I’ll be walking. I’ll be back into throwing. Brian Ebel, the head trainer now, he was out here for the last three days with me, speaking with the doctors, speaking with my physical therapist out here in California, so we have a really good baseline on what we’re going to do, and what we can accomplish in spring.
“Hopefully, before spring’s over, for the most part I’ll look like a healthy player, minus some of the things that we’ve got to make sure that the ligament’s completely healed.”
If Britton can return ahead of schedule, perhaps by late May or early June, the 2018 Orioles could take on a very different complexion. The bullpen faltered when Britton was shelved in 2017 with a left forearm strain, so his return would bring much-needed stability to the relief corps. A healthy Britton, if he can resemble the dominant closer he was in 2016, would be one of the Orioles’ top weapons — or, if the club is out of the race by midseason, a valuable trade chip for a contender.
Caleb Joseph is emerging as a leader
For the first time as a big leaguer, Caleb Joseph is entering a season as the Orioles’ presumed starting catcher. After three years of backing up Matt Wieters and one season splitting time with Welington Castillo, Joseph is the No. 1 catcher following Castillo’s free-agent departure to the Chicago White Sox.
“This is my 11th season with the Orioles. Pretty cool,” Joseph said. “Every single spring training that I’ve come to, I’ve still felt uneasy. And I think that’s a good thing. I think there’s a lot of drive and desire in there. But this year, I’m not necessarily worried that I’m not going to make the team. But now it’s like I’ve got something extra to push forward.”
The 31-year-old Joseph is embracing the opportunity not only to get regular playing time, but also to serve as a mentor for the Orioles’ younger catchers, Chance Sisco (22) and Austin Wynns (27).
“I think one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever been paid was this past offseason, when [Trey] Mancini said some really nice things about me (being a mentor). And I still owe him that $100 that I told him I’d pay him when he said that,” Joseph joked.
“That’s the kind of reputation that makes me feel better than the accolades and stuff, because I feel like Trey will remember that long after we’re done playing and the games are over. So, to have that opportunity like Matt was to me, and John Russell and Don Werner, hopefully be that to these young guys. I feel like that’s a huge responsibility and a huge honor. Five years ago, I was in the opposite foot, so now it feels good. I’m excited about it.”