Facing an unusually large class of 17 arbitration-eligible players, the Orioles surprised many observers by offering contracts on Friday to each of them and agreeing on one-year contracts with four players.
Because the Orioles have such an impressive group of young infielders and outfielders who have barely played in the major leagues if they’ve played at all, it was thought that some of those on the arbitration list might not be offered contracts by the 8 p.m. deadline.
Instead, four thought to be in danger of being non-tendered — left-hander Keegan Akin, outfielder Sam Hilliard, infielder/outfielder Jorge Mateo and outfielder Ryan McKenna — all agreed to one-year contracts.
According to the New York Post’s Jon Heyman, Akin signed for $825,000 plus incentives, Hilliard for $800,000, and Mateo for $2.7 million.
MLBTradeRumors.com estimated Akin would command $800,000, Hilliard $1.1 million and Mateo $2.9 million in arbitration.
The Orioles offered contracts to the 13 other players eligible for arbitration — outfielders Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander, infielders Ryan Mountcastle and Ramón Urías, infielder/outfielder Ryan O’Hearn, left-handed pitchers Danny Coulombe, Cole Irvin, John Means and Cionel Pérez, and right-handers Dillon Tate, Jacob Webb and Tyler Wells.
The Orioles also tendered contracts to each of their players not yet eligible for arbitration.
This doesn’t mean that these players will be with the 2024 Orioles.
Hilliard, Mateo and McKenna are out of options and if the Orioles wanted to send them to Triple-A Norfolk, they’d have to pass through waivers. Akin has an option left.
The Orioles have 36 players on their 40-man roster, leaving them room to sign free agents, claim players off waivers and draft a player in the Rule 5 draft on December 6th.
While most of the 13 players who’ve been offered but not yet signed contracts weren’t at risk of being non-tendered, right-handed relievers Dillon Tate and Jacob Webb could have been at risk.
Tate, who has a 3.97 ERA and eight saves from 2019-2022, was thought to be a bullpen mainstay for 2023 and had made a commitment to play for Team USA in the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias announced as spring training began last February that Tate had an elbow injury and would miss not only the WBC, but the beginning of the Orioles’ season. Tate struggled in his rehab assignment with a 15.19 ERA in 13 games with High-A Aberdeen, Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk and never pitched in a game after June 21st.
The Orioles must think his elbow has improved and he can contribute to an Orioles bullpen that, with the absence of Félix Bautista because of Tommy John surgery, could use another right-handed late-innings pitcher. Tate cut down on walks in 2022, averaging just two per nine innings and allowing seven hits per nine innings.
If Tate is healthy, he can be an important contributor to the bullpen, and it doesn’t hurt that he has two options remaining.
Webb had a great start last August after he was claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Angels. He didn’t allow a hit in his first three outings nor a run in his first nine games.
He gave up eight runs in his next 16 games and finished with a 3.27 ERA, giving the Orioles hope that he could be a bullpen piece in 2024 even though he is also out of options.
Akin missed the second half of the season with a back injury but since many of the other relievers (Mike Baumann, Coulombe, Irvin, Pérez, Webb) don’t have options, it’s important to have relievers who do have an option remaining.
There was thought that Mateo and Urías, who slumped offensively and defensively in 2023, would be heading elsewhere. Perhaps one of the reasons they didn’t is in case top infield prospects Coby Mayo, Connor Norby or Joey Ortiz are traded for pitching, the Orioles have reliable veterans on hand.
Mateo’s speed with 32 steals in 37 attempts is also valuable.
If the Orioles decide to trade one of their veteran outfielders, they’d like Hilliard and McKenna around for depth. In case the 40-man roster gets full, they could be candidates to move off it.
Hilliard and McKenna provide speed and defense. Each can play all three outfield positions. In 2023, with larger bases and limits on pickoff attempts, 80 percent of steals were successful, and Hilliard and McKenna have a combined 27 steals in 29 attempts in their major league careers.
The next step is to negotiate contracts before the January 12th deadline for exchanging figures. Under executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, the Orioles have said that they’ll go to arbitration without negotiating further if contracts aren’t signed by the deadline.
However, they’ve made exceptions in the past for Means and Trey Mancini, and in January, avoided arbitration with pitcher Austin Voth just before hearings began.