Spring training begins in five weeks, and with most of the recognizable free agents spoken for, the Orioles’ options are limited.
Starting pitchers Michael Wacha, Johnny Cueto, Michael Pineda remain, and it’s still possible that executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias signs one.
On Friday, the Orioles and their six arbitration-eligible players — outfielders Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, shortstop Jorge Mateo and pitchers Dillon Tate and Austin Voth — must exchange figures for the arbitration process if 2023 contracts haven’t been finalized.
It’s possible that another team’s reluctance to pay a pitcher what they’re likely to earn in arbitration could allow the Orioles to make a trade. The Orioles might have to surrender one of their own regulars or a prized prospects for that to happen.
The guess here is that Elias continues to wait out the market and instead of paying $8 million for a one-year contract, as the Pittsburgh Pirates did for soon-to-be 43-year-old Rich Hill, he signs a free agent more cheaply.
Although there has been speculation that the Orioles might offer one of their young players for a veteran, it’s possible that Elias chooses to wait here, too.
The Orioles do need another veteran starting pitcher, but when last month’s free-agent frenzy spiraled out of control, Elias wasn’t going to get involved.
That stance might disappoint fans who think that the additions of starter Kyle Gibson, reliever Mychal Givens, second baseman Adam Frazier and catcher James McCann haven’t been enough.
However, perhaps Elias thinks that those players, full seasons from catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson, the addition of rookie pitchers DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, and the development of starters Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer and Tyler Wells could be good enough to get the Orioles to the postseason without surrendering prospects.
They’re also expected to get starter John Means back from Tommy John surgery by midseason.
There won’t be another 31-game turnaround, as there was last season, but if the Orioles win five or seven more games that might be enough to advance to the postseason.
It’s natural to think that the Orioles’ bullpen, which had an ERA of 3.49, could regress. Left-hander Cionel Pérez, who compiled a 7-1 record, a 1.40 ERA, and allowed only two home runs in 57 2/3 innings, might not be able to duplicate that kind of success. But Elias has tried to fortify his bullpen core of Pérez, Félix Bautista, Bryan Baker and Dillon Tate with the addition of Givens and Rule 5 right-hander Andrew Politi.
The Orioles have just a handful of unsettled spots heading into spring training and have a number of candidates for the starting rotation and long relief. A year ago, Spenser Watkins and Bruce Zimmermann were expected to contribute. Now, they might have a hard time making the club.
Mike Baumman also might struggle to make the team. Zac Lowther, once a top prospect, isn’t on the 40-man roster and might not get much of a look during spring training. Alexander Wells isn’t even in the organization.
Voth, who was a terrific waiver wire pickup with a 3.04 ERA, should be a valuable swingman, and maybe more.
This isn’t to suggest that the Orioles shouldn’t have been more aggressive in the competition for pitchers Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, Jameson Taillon or Taijuan Walker in the free-agent market. It’s exciting when teams make splashes in free agency, and it can be good for business because more tickets are sold.
It’s also understandable that fans have questions about the Orioles’ acquisition of left-handed hitting first baseman Ryan O’Hearn only to see him designated for assignment two days later so they could claim another left-handed hitting first baseman, Lewin Díaz, whom they traded to Atlanta on December 23rd, just three weeks after claiming him off waivers.
The Orioles would prefer to have both in spring training to compete for the backup job to Ryan Mountcastle, and Elias is betting O’Hearn, with a $1.4 million contract and a minor league option remaining, can go unclaimed. Elias managed to reclaim infielders Hanser Alberto in 2019 and Pat Valaika in 2020.
Besides possible trades for arbitration-eligible players who might have multiple years left before free agency, Elias might want to see how his young core plays in the first half of the season. If something’s obviously missing or needs shoring up, then the Orioles can consider trading prospects for veterans in July.
Not all free-agent signings are wise ones, and it will be interesting to see if these young Orioles can further improve on their 2022 turnaround in 2023 without resorting to large free-agent expenditures.