There will be dozens of decisions facing the Orioles’ new hierarchy beyond a new manager and coaches. At the top will be determining how they will proceed with rebuilding a team that hit bottom this past season.
Will they sign free agents to one-year “bridge” contracts? Which players on the major league roster will stay? Are there players in the minors who could contribute in 2019 and beyond?
The old regime took the initial steps to deconstruct the team last July. They sold off obvious targets: Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman while getting out from Darren O’Day’s onerous contract.
In return they received 15 players and $2.75 million in international bonus slot money. How many of those players will the new regime view as valuable, and how much of the more than $6 million in international money will be spent on high-end prospects?
The international market was among the change in direction the Orioles cited for an upgrade, along with a stronger commitment to scouting and analytics.
There also will need to be timely decisions on personnel. The 40-man roster must be set by the end of November and space must be cleared to add prospects and figure out if players such as Tim Beckham and Caleb Joseph have a future with the team.
Beckham and Joseph could be non-tendered, but since fresh eyes will be making those calls, perhaps they’ll be viewed as pieces worth keeping.
The Winter Meetings are in early December in Las Vegas. At last year’s Winter Meetings at Disney World, the Orioles toyed with the idea of trading Machado.
This time, they don’t have many pieces to trade. There was interest in Mychal Givens in July, but he wasn’t moved, and pitched well in the final two months as a closer. Givens isn’t viewed yet as a top-shelf reliever and may not bring back enough to satisfy the Orioles.
Starter Dylan Bundy could garner interest, but his 2018 season was statistically awful. He allowed a major-league leading 41 home runs and his Wins Above Replacement Value (WAR) was only 0.1.
Andrew Cashner, who limped to a 4-15 record and 5.29 ERA, had a better WAR (0.6) than Bundy, but there doesn’t seem to be a market for him. Nor is there one for Alex Cobb, who despite pitching well in the second half of the season, has a contract that has three years and $43 million left on it.
At some point, the new regime will have to decide if the deconstruction has gone far enough and if construction can start.
Will they like Trey Mancini, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart? Can catcher Chance Sisco recover from an awful season? Are outfield prospects Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays and Ryan McKenna close to being major league ready? Where should Ryan Mountcastle play?
Their opinions might not align with those of former executive vice president Dan Duqette and manager Buck Showalter. Showalter would caution that a common mistake is for a new hire to think everything was wrong with a situation they’re inheriting.
When Showalter took over in August 2010, the situation was much different. The team had floundered for 12 years but had three building blocks: Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters.
Machado was about to begin a wonderful career, and there were a handful of players on the roster or minors that would help the team to three postseason berths in five years: Zach Britton, Jim Johnson and Chris Tillman.
Most of the players Showalter had in the last two months of the 2010 season were soon gone.
After a season in which the Orioles lost 115 games, everything is much different. The losing began in September 2017, and may not be close to an end. There don’t seem to be any obvious building blocks.
Patience will be required, but how much patience will fans have? Attendance is at a 40-year-low after a drop of nearly a half-million in 2018.
The Orioles can begin 2019 with Bundy, Cashner, Cobb, David Hess and Yefry Ramirez in the rotation, but they can’t afford the embarrassment of September when injuries to Cashner, Cobb and Luis Ortiz and innings’ limitations to Josh Rogers left Showalter scrambling in the final few weeks.
Would the Orioles consider the opener theory that the Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays successfully used in 2018?
They seem to have accumulated some solid bullpen pieces in Givens, Paul Fry, Sean Gilmartin and Tanner Scott.
After surgery to repair a torn left lat muscle in June, Richard Bleier might be back early in 2019, adding to the strength of the bullpen and giving the Orioles another trade chip.
But will the focus shift from: “Who can we trade?” to “Will we be better in 2019?”
Mathematically, it shouldn’t be hard to be better. The Orioles had more losses than all but four teams in baseball history. However, if they improve by 15 games, they’ll still lose 100.
Losing might be hard on a first-time manager, which might be the way the Orioles go. And it will continue to be hard on even the most loyal fan.
But the rebuilding process could also be fascinating to observe and, if done right, will pay off in the long run.