As soon as the World Series ends, free agency begins as does the winterlong shaping of the Orioles’ roster.
The five free agents — Kyle Gibson, their leader in innings pitched and wins; reliever Shintaro Fujinami; right-hander Jack Flaherty; infielder Adam Frazier; and outfielder Aaron Hicks all come off the 40-man roster.
Relievers Keegan Akin and Dillon Tate, whose futures with the team are uncertain, and infielder Terrin Vavra — all on the 60-day injured list — need to be returned to the 40-man roster.
Those movements will mean the roster is at 38. Last week, the Orioles claimed left-handed pitcher Tucker Davidson from the Kansas City Royals, the only move the team has made since its season ended three weeks ago.
Then, the guessing begins. How many of the 16 arbitration-eligible players remain on the team? Akin, who didn’t pitch after June because of a back injury, and Tate, who didn’t pitch at all last season, seem the most likely not to be offered major league contracts.
Infielders Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías could be traded or non-tendered. So could outfielder Ryan McKenna.
If Frazier, Mateo and Urías all don’t return, it’s possible that their replacements come from within the organization.
Joey Ortiz, who somehow never got back to the Orioles after playing 15 games in the first three months of the season, looks to have an important role on the team next season. Ortiz hit .321 with an .885 OPS along with nine home runs and 58 RBIs for Triple-A Norfolk. He played second base, shortstop and third base in his 15 games with the Orioles.
Connor Norby, like Ortiz, Mateo and Urías, is a right-handed hitter. He hit .290 with an .842 OPS for Norfolk with 21 home runs and 92 RBIs. Besides second base, Norby played 27 games in left field and five in right.
Ortiz and Norby are rated sixth and seventh on the Orioles’ MLB Pipeline list of Oriole top 30 prospects.
It’s possible that one could be packaged in a deal for a starting pitcher, but it’s clear that there could be a place on the 2024 Orioles for both.
The top Oriole prospect, and the top prospect in all minor league baseball, is 19-year-old shortstop Jackson Holliday, who isn’t going anywhere. Holliday played at four levels in 2023, Single-A Delmarva, High-A Aberdeen, Double-A Bowie and Norfolk.
Ortiz is already on the 40-man roster. Norby and Holliday don’t need to be placed on the 40-man roster until they join the Orioles’ 26-man roster.
Perhaps the biggest storyline of next spring training will be whether Holliday, who had three weeks at Triple-A, will be ready for the major leagues at 20. Having Holliday, Norby, Ortiz, Gunnar Henderson, Ryan Mountcastle and Jordan Westburg in the same infield would be fascinating, and unusual.
It’s possible that along with outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad to add to holdovers Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander and catchers Adley Rutschman and James McCann and first baseman/outfielder Ryan O’Hearn that nearly all of the Orioles’ position players next season would be products of the Orioles’ minor league system.
Only McCann, O’Hearn and Santander originally signed with other organizations.
It can’t happen that all these players are all on the roster because I’ve just listed 14 players, and they’ll only carry 13 position players.
But if they don’t trade any of these players, there won’t be many camp competitions among the position players.
Of course, the Orioles need depth, and they’ll need to sign position players to minor league contracts.
This year’s Norfolk Tides were an unusual bunch. They won the International League championship and beat Oklahoma City for the Triple-A title.
Besides Cowser, Holliday, Kjerstad, Norby, Ortiz and Westburg, they had first baseman Lewin Díaz and outfielder Daz Cameron, both of whom had extensive major league experience, but stayed with the Tides, playing more than 110 games without a call to the majors.
Corner infielder Josh Lester, who hit 23 homers and drove in 87 runs, hit .182 in 11 games with the Orioles, and still played 110 games with Norfolk.
While there was excellent camaraderie at Norfolk, players such as Cameron, Diaz and Lester would have gotten major league opportunities in other organizations, and the odds of them getting them in Baltimore in 2024 are slim, barring major injuries.
Lester quickly filed for free agency after Norfolk’s season ended.
It will be interesting to see what kind of free agents sign minor league contracts with the Orioles.
Holliday could start the season at Norfolk. So could corner infielder Coby Mayo, who hit a combined .290 with a .974 OPS and 29 homers with 99 RBIs in 140 games at Bowie and Norfolk.
Mayo, the organization’s No. 4 prospect. is blocked for the moment by Mountcastle, and he could be included in a trade for a starter.
With Mayo, Holliday and outfield prospects Dylan Beavers, Jud Fabian and John Rhodes possibly moving up to Triple-A in 2024, the Orioles might not be able to sell the opportunity to play to minor league free agents with some major league experience.
Perhaps, more importantly, they can sell the chance to possibly play a role, as Hicks did, on a contending club if there’s an injury to a key player.