SARASOTA, Florida—It was a bit of a surprise when the Orioles agreed on a one-year, $7 million contract with 31-year-old right-handed starter Jordan Lyles just before the lockout began on December 2nd.
It was the largest contract Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias handed out to a free agent in his three years in charge. Lyles, who has a 2022 team option for $11 million, couldn’t sign the contract until the lockout ended.
“There were a handful of teams after the World Series ended and free agency began, but Mike and Baltimore, they had the strongest interest,” Lyles says. “Then the day of the lockout, Mike made some efforts to get a deal in place before we were going to go silent.”
The Orioles haven’t been known to outbid other teams for free agents, but Lyles said that they were aggressive. In 2021, Lyles was 10-13 with a 5.15 ERA in a career-high 180 innings for the Texas Rangers. He gave up the most home runs, 38, and earned runs, 103, in the league.
“There was some interest out there,” Lyles said. “Overall last year numbers-wise wasn’t the best, but in terms of quality outings and stuff. I know there’s going to be interest in teams that saw the underlying numbers of what I did last year, a good bulk of innings.
“I wasn’t surprised. I knew there would be interest. I didn’t know whether it was going to come before or after the lockout. They stepped up pretty strong the day of, and we felt comfortable making an agreement.”
Lyles was in limbo during the lockout. He was still technically a free agent even though he had an agreement with the Orioles, but no one to talk to about the collective bargaining agreement.
“Super weird. I literally did not talk to a soul from the organization on the phone, text message,” he said. “For me, personally, more importantly, I didn’t have a team rep to lean during those conversations for the CBA. That means just as much to me. I was getting generic information from agents and the [players’ association].
“I didn’t necessarily have a strong insight on the players’ side. But Baltimore-wise it was weird, just waiting for something to happen, and then when it finally happened, we were already in that spring training window. My first call that night was, ‘Hey, can you make it down in the morning? Let’s get some MRIs ready.’ That was my first contact.”
Lyles is one of a handful of Orioles over 30.
“In a different way, I still feel young,” he said. “I still think mentally I’ve got so much to learn and pick up. I never once felt the need to talk down or put my arm around someone.
“I’ve always had one-on-one normal conversations. ‘Let’s pick each other’s brains.’ I’ve always made it clear that if anyone ever needs anything, baseball-wise or non-baseball-wise, come find me, but there are some things I can share with these young guys and they’re going to share some things with me. That’s how my mind works. I want to get better.”
Lyles said that durability and his ability to relate are his strong suits.
“[I’m] someone guys can come and talk to in the clubhouse, keep the morale up when things are a little tough, celebrate guys when they do well.
“I think most importantly, [I’m] a guy that can be leaned on to stretch out an extra inning or two every other start to [help] our young [pitchers], not only in the [starting] staff, but in the bullpen, if I can limit them to an extra inning or two, that makes a difference.”
Uncertainty about starters: Manager Brandon Hyde has experienced starters in Lyles and John Means. He has starting candidates who pitched some in 2021: Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, Chris Ellis, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Bruce Zimmermann.
“We’re unsure about roster size in April,” Hyde said. “Starters are not going to be built-up, league-wide, like normal. I think you’re going to see length guys or potential starters coming out of the ‘pen more than ever this year, just because of the shortened spring training.
“Our situation is we have guys that have started in their career, and the rest have very little major league experience. We’re going to build all these guys up, evaluate them at the end and see who we feel is ready to pitch in length as a starter or long middle, what’s best for them, what’s best for their career, what’s best for us.
“I’m hoping all these guys pitch lights out these next three weeks, so we have tough decisions. I think you’re going to see all sorts of creative things, not just with us, but around the league.”
Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB