As the pointy end of the NFL playoffs arrive, baseball fans around the globe are starting to dream of spring sunshine and exhibition baseball games, which are now just over a month away.
This current offseason has been quite intriguing and different to many seen in recent years, with few trades occurring and a very subdued free agent market which is yet to swing into top gear. Of ESPN’s Top 10 ranked free agents, just two have been signed – Zack Cozart (Angels) and Carlos Santana (Phillies) – while five of the Top 6 starting pitchers have also yet to find a home for 2018.
For the Baltimore Orioles, it’s been a winter to forget, with the team failing to bolster its roster, as well as being the laughing stock of MLB for the way it’s handled Manny Machado. The ballclub has seemingly altered its stance on a potential trade of the superstar infielder on numerous occasions, struggled to contain sensitive information within the front office, and watched its division rivals – most notably the New York Yankees – surge ahead of them with the addition of key talent.
However, there is still hope…
While it’s been pretty much doom and gloom in Birdland, the Orioles can still add some pieces to the puzzle and establish a more than competitive roster heading into the 2018 season. Offensively, the team is still stacked with talent and backing up its pitchers is still one of the most impressive defenses in the game.
As it currently stands, the Orioles infield appears relatively set for Opening Day, with Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop, Tim Beckham, and Machado all likely to start. While Machado has been vocal in his desire to shift across from the hot corner to shortstop, this would significantly upset the balance of the infield with Beckham’s bat being needed in the lineup. For the time being, I would expect Machado to stay at third. While appeasing Machado would be appreciated, Manager Buck Showalter is more concerned with wins than boosting Machado’s value as free agency nears. The importance of Schoop replicating his breakout 2017 campaign, and the need for Davis to return to his 2015 form, are of utmost importance if the Orioles are going to remain competitive in 2018.
Behind the dish, expect rookie Chance Sisco and Caleb Joseph to share the duties. Joseph is coming of a very solid 2017 campaign while Sisco has proven he has the bat to succeed in the Majors, and its hoped his defense will follow suit.
Mark Trumbo will be looking to rebound after a disappointing 2017 campaign and is set to occupy the DH role more often than not.
That leaves one vacant spot, for the backup infielder, and there’s a few options the Orioles can explore. Former Nationals veteran Stephen Drew may be 34-years-old now, however he has a wealth of experience, hits left-handed, and can play any infield position – all things the Orioles need. Coming of an injury-plagued 2017 season where he played just 46 games, Drew could be signed relatively cheaply and appears to be a low risk investment worth exploring.
Former Blue Jay Ryan Goins is also looking for a new home and despite putting up some lackluster offensive numbers last season (.237/.286/.356), he did feature in 143 games and can play either second, short, or third. He is versatile and durable, which is exactly what Showalter loved about Ryan Flaherty, and his splits are also substantially better against both the Boston Red Sox and Yankees in comparison to his career marks.
The outfield looks relatively set and should pick itself come Opening Day. Trey Mancini will be the team’s everyday left fielder while veteran Adam Jones will resume his spot in center. The duties in right field could be shared between the inexperienced trio of Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, and Jaycob Brugman. Hays, who was given his first taste of big league action late in the season and showed glimpses of his potential, is one of the team’s most highly touted prospects and will be given every opportunity to make the spot his own during Spring Training, while former Rule 5 pick Santander, the switch-hitter, will look to build on his 30 at bats in an injury-plagued 2017 season where he hit .267. Brugman, acquired somewhat quietly by the Orioles via trade in November, gives Showalter a left-handed option at the plate and impressed in his rookie season in 2017, hitting .266 with three home runs in 143 at bats with the Oakland Athletics. Still just 25, Brugman has more than 2,000 minor league plate appearances under his belt and owns a respectable .770 OPS. Joey Rickard will also be vying for a roster spot throughout Spring Training, however doesn’t bring the left-handed option that Brugman does.
Without doubt, filling the Orioles rotation is the most difficult task facing Dan Duquette this offseason. As it currently stands, the Orioles have just two certainties, being Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Despite encouraging signs from each in 2017, consistency remains a problem and neither are ready to lead this rotation into battle. As such, the front office needs to sign a genuine número uno if they’re going to have any chance of competing in a stacked AL East.
Yu Darvish is overrated and worth avoiding. He’s also going to fetch a contract well beyond what the Orioles can offer. Meanwhile, a reunion with Jake Arrieta would be poetic, however it’s unlikely to happen on many levels. Former Rays stud Alex Cobb is worth considering, however injuries are certainly a concern – something he’s been plagued by his entire career. In saying that, when healthy, the guy deals – especially against division rivals. Against the Red Sox he owns a 6-4 record with a 3.43 ERA, while that improves to 6-4 with a 2.99 ERA against the Yankees. At Camden Yards though, he’s 3-1 yet owns a 4.62 ERA. It’s expected that Cobb could fetch up to $18M per season, however given his prior injuries, a lesser value seems likely. Will Peter Angelos be scared off by this amount? Absolutely – especially after the failings of both Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovanni Gallardo. However quality pitching costs money and if the Orioles want to remain in contention, the rotation needs a genuine leader.
Lance Lynn is the other free agent option seriously worth considering. The 30-year-olds career numbers are slightly better than Cobb’s at 72-47, 3.38 ERA , however he’s enjoyed the benefit of pitching in the National League since debuting in 2011. He’s slightly older than Cobb, however far more durable, even missing all of 2016 following Tommy John surgery. Looking closely though, Lynn’s velocity, strikeout rate and walk rate all slumped in 2017 and he also experience a huge spike in his homer-to-flyball rate – concerning news for anyone looking to make a move to the mashing AL East and hitter-friendly Camden Yards. Cost wise, he’s set to fetch a similar deal to what Cobb could.
Chris Tillman had a truly horrendous 2017 season however much of that could be put down to injury and simply a lack of momentum – he just couldn’t find any rhythm last season. Despite his recent struggles, he’s been a valuable servant for the Orioles since 2009 and is deserving of another chance – a clean slate in 2018. He will also be signed for far less than the $10M+ he earned last year. While there’s no doubt he shouldn’t occupy a spot at the front of the rotation, he could however slip into a number four spot quite comfortably and look to build on his 73-55 record in Birdland.
Hypothetically, with potentially Cobb, Bundy, Gausman, and Tillman occupying four of the rotation spots, the final spot could go to an internal candidate, with Gabriel Ynoa and Alec Asher being two names in contention. Miguel Castro has impressed in long-relief roles on multiple occasions and has the stuff to succeed as a starting pitcher, however with Zach Britton going down with an Achilles injury, his value in the bullpen is arguably now more important.
The Orioles bullpen is expected to look much like it did in 2017, however the loss of Zach Britton until potentially the midway point of the season, hurts. With arguably the best closer in baseball on the sidelines, it’s expected that Brad Brach will take on the closer duties, a role in which he collected 18 saves last year (he did however blow six). Supporting him in short relief you’ll find the consistent duo of Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier, while left-hander Donnie Hart is also expected to secure a spot. Despite some inconsistencies early, veteran submariner Darren O’Day finished the 2017 season strongly and will look to carry that form into his 11th MLB season. Miguel Castro, assuming he doesn’t land a rotation spot, will find himself in the bullpen again and hope to build on an impressive rookie season, while the last bullpen place – a long relief role – could go to Alec Asher who worked to a 3.56 ERA in relief appearances last season. Others in contention and seeking to impress during Spring Training will be Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes, who owns an impressive 25-14 record and 2.08 ERA in his five minor league seasons, Mike Wright and Jimmy Yacabonis.
Hypothetical Orioles Roster
INF: Davis, Schoop, Beckham, Machado, Drew
OF: Mancini, Jones, Hays, Santander, Brugman
C: Sisco, Joseph
SP: Cobb, Bundy, Gausman, Tillman, Ynoa
RP: Asher, Castro, Bleier, O’Day, Hart, Givens, Brach