After a deep rebuild that featured last-place finishes in each of the past four full seasons, the Orioles showed signs of optimism in 2022. Many of their prospects reached the majors and played well, allowing the club to flirt with postseason contention and finish above .500 for the first time since 2016. GM Mike Elias has teased that the coming offseason will involve a higher payroll, but just how aggressive will they be?
- John Means, LHP: $2.975M through 2023 (arbitration-eligible for one year thereafter)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected 2023 salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
The Orioles have consistently been one of the worst teams in baseball in recent years, with few people expecting anything different going into 2022. But many of the club’s young players either made strong debuts or took steps forward, leading the team to a respectable season for the first time in recent memory. They stayed in the Wild Card race until the final week of the season and finished with a winning record for the first time since 2016.
What that means going forward is an open question that will be answered in the months to come. General manager Mike Elias was hired after the 2018 season, meaning we have no template for what it looks like when he decides to be aggressive. The club hasn’t given a multi-year contract to a free agent since Alex Cobb’s four-year deal in March 2018, before Elias was hired.
Back in August, Elias said that the O’s will “significantly escalate the payroll,” though he could mean different things by that. The highest Opening Day payroll the Orioles have ever had was the $164M of 2017, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, though it’s been steadily declining since then. This year’s mark was just under $44M, the lowest in the league. It would be possible for the payroll to escalate “significantly” while remaining low compared to the other 29 clubs. But if they want to be truly aggressive, there’s little standing in their way. They have no long-term commitments whatsoever, with Means the only player on the books for 2023 and no one guaranteed for 2024.
If they do decide to make a sizeable commitment to a free agent, it would make the most sense for it to be a pitcher since the position player core is in decent shape. Behind the plate, Adley Rutschman made good on his top prospect status with an excellent rookie season. In 113 games, he hit .254/.362/.445 for a wRC+ of 133, indicating he was 33% better than the league-average hitter. That would be impressive work for any batter, but it’s especially impressive for a catcher and a rookie at that. He also got good grades from defensive metrics, allowing him to produce 5.3 wins above replacement in the eyes of FanGraphs and cementing himself as the catcher of the future.
A Spring Training injury delayed his debut until May, meaning he’s currently short one year of MLB service time. However, there’s a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement that gives a full year of service to the top two finishers in Rookie of the Year voting. Rutschman will most likely finish second behind Julio Rodríguez, meaning he would have five years of club control remaining before hitting the six-year mark. That should keep Rutschman in Baltimore through at least 2027, though an extension could always lengthen the relationship and would be one way of spending aggressively.
With Rutschman entrenched for years to come, the O’s will only have to think about backup and depth options. Robinson Chirinos got into 67 games in 2022 but is headed to free agency. In terms of in-house options, they added Anthony Bemboom to the 40-man roster just a few weeks ago to prevent him from reaching minor-league free agency. Then there are waiver claims Cam Gallagher, Mark Kolozsvary, and Aramis Garcia. If the O’s want to supplement that group, they’d be a candidate for a veteran signing, such as bringing back Chirinos or someone like Sandy León, though they could also ride with the many options they already have.
At first base, the club traded away Trey Mancini at the deadline, leaving the position in the hands of Ryan Mountcastle. His power took a step back this year, hitting just 22 home runs compared to 33 last year. Some of that is surely due to the club pushing back the left field wall, though Mountcastle was still above-average at the plate overall. His .250/.305/.423 batting line this year adds up to a wRC+ of 106, or 6% above league average. That’s fairly middle-of-the-pack production from the first base slot, meaning it’s a theoretical area they could look to upgrade. However, Mountcastle is still young, turning 26 in February, and has yet to reach arbitration eligibility. He’ll likely get some time to find another gear. Jesús Aguilar, who was with the club for September and October, is reaching free agency, meaning there’s room for a backup/bench bat. Re-signing Aguilar would make some sense, though guys like Colin Moran will also be available.
The rest of the infield has some fluidity to it, thanks to the versatility of Gunnar Henderson. The club’s other top prospect, he debuted later in the season and hit .259/.348/.440 for a wRC+ of 125 in 34 games. He primarily lined up at third base at that time, though also saw some action at shortstop and second base. Jorge Mateo was the club’s primary shortstop this year, hitting at a below-average rate but still proving to be plenty useful due to his speed and defense. His .221/.267/.379 batting line only amounted to an 82 wRC+, but he also stole 35 bases and was unanimously praised by advanced defensive metrics. With Rougned Odor reaching free agency, second base is up for grabs, though there are internal options. Ramón Urías hit .248/.305/.414 for a wRC+ of 104 while playing second, third, and short. Terrin Vavra spent some time at the keystone but also in the outfield.
Many people have opined that the O’s should target one of the big four free agent shortstops this winter (Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson), given their lack of payroll commitments and ability to shuffle their current infielders around. While that level of aggressiveness would certainly be exciting, there are reasons to suspect they will dedicate their resources elsewhere. Joseph Ortiz, Coby Mayo, and Jackson Holliday are all infielders and are considered to be among the top 100 prospects in the game by FanGraphs, while Baseball America has Holliday and Jordan Westburg on their list. Holliday is just 18 and still years away from the majors, but Ortiz and Westburg both reached Triple-A in 2022, with Mayo getting as high as Double-A. The O’s might want a path available for these players to force their way into the big league picture throughout 2023.
The outfield also saw a prospect debut this year, as Kyle Stowers came up and hit .253/.306/.418 for a wRC+ of 107 in 34 games. He should slot next to Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays as the club’s regular outfield mix. Anthony Santander will also be around, though he has the least defensive acumen of the group and could potentially see significant time as the designated hitter. Just like on the infield, future reinforcements are coming on the grass. Colton Cowser is considered to be one of the top 100 prospects in the sport by each of FanGraphs, Baseball America, and MLB Pipeline. He got as high as Triple-A in 2022 and will likely make his MLB debut in 2023.
With lots of depth on the position player side of things, the O’s should have plenty of opportunities on the trade market. Perhaps they believe in Cowser enough to explore a trade of Hays, opening up the outfield picture a bit. With a bevy of infield prospects on the way, maybe they feel they can make a move there. Trading away someone at the big league level like Mateo or Urías is a possibility. But they could also trade away one of their many prospects for immediate help.
Turning to the pitching staff, there’s less certainty. Seven different pitchers got into double digits in terms of games started, with a mixed bag of results. Austin Voth and Dean Kremer were the only two of the group to post ERAs under 4.00 while with Baltimore. In both cases, advanced metrics are skeptical of the results, with low BABIPs and high strand rates helping them to minimize the damage. Jordan Lyles, Tyler Wells, Kyle Bradish, and Spenser Watkins were each between 4.00 and 5.00 in the ERA department, with none of them getting strikeouts at an above-average rate. Bruce Zimmermann’s ERA came in at 5.99. Some of these guys are still young and getting their feet wet, which means they will continue to get chances going forward. But none of them were so strong in 2022 that they should be guaranteed a rotation spot at this point. There should be plenty of room for free-agent additions here, even with top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez on the cusp of entering the picture. John Means should be a factor at some point in 2023, but it will depend on how he recovers from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in April of this year.
The types of free agents that they target will depend on exactly how significant the payroll increase will be. The top of the market will feature aces like Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, and Carlos Rodón. It would certainly be surprising to see the O’s shopping in that aisle, though there’s no real reason they couldn’t do it. If they aren’t willing to be quite that aggressive, they could look to Kodai Senga, Tyler Anderson, Chris Bassitt, Mike Clevinger, and Nathan Eovaldi as solid middle-of-the-rotation options. If they decide to stick with one-year deals, they will likely be looking at guys like Chris Archer, Dylan Bundy, Zach Davies, and others of that ilk. It could go in many different ways, but the O’s have virtually no payroll commitments and plenty of room in the rotation. The big question will be how bold they want to be.
Turning to the bullpen, this was a strength for the O’s this season. The club’s relievers posted a collective 3.49 ERA this year, ninth-best among MLB teams, even though they traded Jorge López to the Twins at the deadline. Félix Bautista, Cionel Pérez, and Bryan Baker were some of the relievers to show promising results. However, reliever performance is notoriously volatile and the O’s don’t have a veteran presence in the ’pen. Dillon Tate, who turns 29 in May and has just over three years of service time, is the old hand of the crew. It would be plenty sensible for the club to add a guy who’s been around for a bit, both for on-field performance and for mentoring capabilities. Players like Chris Martin, Adam Ottavino, or Tommy Kahnle shouldn’t cost too much but would fit nicely, though there’s also nothing stopping the O’s from splurging on Edwin Díaz or Kenley Jansen.
Ultimately, the O’s are a grand unknown until we see what Elias has in mind. Since taking over, he’s been extremely conservative with spending on the big league roster, avoiding all multi-year deals while focusing on acquiring and developing prospects. It seems like now is a good time to make a shift and start focusing on the major league level, but we don’t have a barometer for what that will look like. They still have many exciting prospects on the way, meaning they could continue with modest deals while waiting for the farm to continue producing, or they could use that prospect stockpile for a bold trade. But with a wide-open future payroll and plenty of young talent, the O’s could be big players in free agency or the trade market or both, if they want to be.