Last Friday marked Major League Baseball’s deadline for teams to either extend contracts or non-tender their arbitration-eligible players, and the Orioles’ Tim Beckham and Caleb Joseph were just two of the many notable names around baseball who were cut loose.
A few of those non-tendered players could potentially be a fit for the Orioles, including a couple who have previous ties with the club’s new executive vice president and general manager, Mike Elias.
RHP Mike Fiers
Elias, who spent the past seven years in the Houston Astros’ front office, is quite familiar with Fiers, who pitched 70 games for the Astros from 2015-17 after they acquired him from Milwaukee (in a deal that sent ex-Orioles prospect Josh Hader to the Brewers). Fiers went 21-19 with a 4.59 ERA for Houston, including a no-hitter Aug. 21, 2015, in his fourth game as an Astro. Fiers was a regular member of the Astros’ rotation during their World Series championship season in 2017, but struggled to a 5.22 ERA and was non-tendered after that season.
Fiers, who doesn’t blow hitters away with his fastball but mixes in an effective curveball and changeup, would provide some stability for an Orioles rotation that has only three spots accounted for: Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner.
The Orioles have held interest in Fiers in the past. Last offseason, after the Astros non-tendered him, Fiers reportedly turned down a two-year contract offer from the Orioles to sign a one-year deal with Detroit. His 12-8 record and 3.56 ERA with the Tigers and Oakland Athletics (who acquired him in August) helped boost his pedigree. Fiers will find a spot in someone’s rotation, and perhaps the Elias connection will give the Orioles a leg up on signing him — provided, of course, that the club is interested.
RHP Shelby Miller
If the Orioles are looking for buy-low candidates, they won’t find one much lower than Miller, whose once-promising career has been derailed after a regrettable three-year stint in Arizona. The Diamondbacks paid a hefty price in 2015 to acquire the right-hander from Atlanta, where he’d been an NL All-Star with a 3.02 ERA in 33 starts despite a league-worst 17 losses. Among the trade package Arizona surrendered were shortstop Dansby Swanson, whom they’d drafted with the No. 1 overall pick six months earlier, as well as center fielder Ender Inciarte, who has won three straight Gold Gloves since joining the Braves.
In his first year with the Diamondbacks, Miller was among the worst pitchers in baseball, going 3-12 with a 6.15 ERA and giving up 11.3 hits per nine innings. Then the injuries struck. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2017, limiting him to four starts that season, and after returning in June 2018, he suffered elbow inflammation and made just five appearances.
Elias was a St. Louis Cardinals scout in 2009 when the club drafted the highly touted Miller out of Brownwood High School (Texas), so the Orioles’ new general manager has seen first-hand how effective Miller can be when he’s at his best. Miller spent his first six seasons with the Cardinals before his trade to the Braves in 2014. Miller’s glory days may be behind him, but with Elias’ extensive knowledge of the 28-year-old right-hander, perhaps he’ll be willing to take a flyer.
OF Billy Hamilton
Arguably the most high-profile player who was non-tendered on Friday, Hamilton is an electrifying player on the basepaths and in the outfield. Not so much at the plate, though. Hamilton has a career batting average of .245 and an on-base percentage of .298. Only once in his five seasons has he posted an OBP of .300 or better. His offensive deficiencies convinced the Cincinnati Reds to cut ties with Hamilton rather than give him a raise over his $4.6 million salary in 2018.
On the plus side, Hamilton would provide a much-needed defensive upgrade for an Orioles club that was one of the worst last season — especially in center, where Adam Jones struggled (and was moved off the position) and Cedric Mullins endured a shaky adjustment to the big leagues. Although Hamilton’s glove has declined in recent years, with a career-worst four Defensive Runs Saved in 2018 per FanGraphs, the 28-year-old is still capable of making spectacular plays. He ranked fifth in the majors this past season with 16 Outs Above Average (a stat I explained in detail earlier this year).
Hamilton would also represent the Orioles’ biggest base-stealing threat since Brian Roberts’ heyday, and perhaps their biggest ever. When he broke into the majors in 2013, some thought Hamilton could rack up MLB’s first 100-steal season since the 1980s. Hamilton’s inability to get on base has stifled those expectations, but he still had four seasons of 56 or more steals and is 277 for 340 (an 81 percent success rate) in his career. It seems a long shot that the Orioles would sign Hamilton, but he’d be a fascinating addition.
C James McCann
With the Orioles’ non-tendering of Joseph, they could look for a veteran catcher to provide support for the relatively inexperienced Austin Wynns and Chance Sisco. McCann has served as the Detroit Tigers’ primary catcher for the past four seasons.
McCann, though, isn’t exactly a huge upgrade over Joseph. In fact, the two put up similar offensive numbers in 2018; McCann batted .220 with a .581 OPS, while Joseph hit .219/.575. In general, though, McCann has a bit more offensive upside than Joseph, and at 28, he’s four years younger. He’s also thrown out 37 percent of attempted base stealers as opposed to Joseph’s 31 percent.
Still, if the Orioles thought Joseph wasn’t worth a salary higher than the $1.25 million he earned last year, would they be willing to offer comparable deal to McCann?
RHP Brad Boxberger
The Orioles’ bullpen is a work in progress, especially from the right side. Closer Mychal Givens and long reliever Miguel Castro appear to be safe bets to crack the Opening Day relief crew, but no other right-handers are assured a spot. The Orioles could look to sign a veteran who not only could help anchor the bullpen, but could be dealt away for a prospect at the trading deadline, when relievers are often a valuable commodity.
Boxberger is one such possibility. The 30-year-old spent much of 2018 as the Diamondbacks’ closer, notching 32 saves, but tailed off after the All-Star break. He had a 7.00 ERA in 22 games in the second half compared to a 3.06 mark in 38 games in the first.
Boxberger’s experience in the AL East could appeal to the Orioles. He had a 3.33 ERA in four seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, including an All-Star selection in 2015, when he led the AL with 41 saves. The previous season, he enjoyed an immaculate inning against the Orioles on May 8, when he entered in a bases-loaded jam and struck out the side on nine pitches. Boxberger would provide a backup closer option if Givens struggles or is traded.
2B Jonathan Schoop
I’m including Schoop on this list because he’s an Orioles fan favorite and would provide instant name recognition on an O’s roster that’s going through sweeping changes. And the Orioles do have an opening in the middle infield, with Jonathan Villar able to start at either second base or shortstop. It would be quite a twist to see Schoop and Villar, who were traded for each other just five months ago, team up as the Orioles’ double-play combination.
In reality, though, there’s little chance Schoop will return, to echo Rich Dubroff’s thoughts. Schoop’s track record of success — including a 2017 All-Star bid — and age (27) mean he’ll probably find better offers on the table elsewhere. Maybe he’ll even attempt to reunite with his best friend, Manny Machado, who is also testing the free-agent waters. Elias and the as-yet-undetermined Orioles’ coaching staff have no previous ties to Schoop, so it’s unlikely they’ll feel any nostalgia to return him to the fold in Baltimore.