With just more than five weeks to go before pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota, Fla., for spring training, the question remains whether the Orioles will improve their starting rotation, which was the club’s biggest weakness in 2013.
There are still plenty of starting pitchers available, including some of the highest-profile ones: Masahiro Tanaka, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, among others. The pitching market seemingly has been held hostage by the Tanaka situation, which should be resolved by Jan. 24, when his negotiation period ends. It’s pretty obvious that teams have been reluctant to sign big-money starters with Tanaka still on the board. That should be cleared up soon.
Here’s a quick look at some of the available starters and which ones are possible fits with the Orioles.
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Tanaka: The 25-year-old right-hander from Japan’s Rakuten Golden Eagles is the biggest prize left on the free-agent market, no matter the position. And he won’t be coming to Baltimore. The Orioles, who have never given a contract beyond three years to any free-agent pitcher, know the price tag for Tanaka will be exorbitant and the contract lengthy. Therefore, executive vice president Dan Duquette said early this offseason that the Orioles wouldn’t be putting up the refundable $20 million posting fee to talk to Tanaka.
Garza, Jimenez and Santana: All are expected to get deals beyond three years, putting them out of the Orioles’ comfort zone. Plus, signing Jimenez and Santana would cost the Orioles their 2014 first-round draft pick. Duquette has said that he would consider forfeiting the draft pick for the right player, but it’s highly unlikely he would do that while also giving a contract of four years or more to a pitcher. Bottom line: forget about these guys unless their stocks’ plummet and one can be snagged at three years or fewer.
A.J. Burnett: The sense is that this is the guy the Orioles want, but he’s their own personal Tanaka. They are waiting for the 37-year-old right-hander to decide whether he wants to pitch again. But here’s the catch: there’s no indication that his choice is Baltimore or retirement. Yes, he lives in Monkton and has two pre-teen sons that he wants to spend as much time with as possible. But there are other major league teams besides the Orioles that aren’t far from his home, such as the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies. And he wasn’t exactly on the other side of the country when he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the past two seasons. If Burnett wants to play again, the Orioles will be an option, perhaps a good option. But they aren’t the only option.
Bronson Arroyo: This is the guy I have been stumping for since the Orioles season ended. He’ll be 37 in February and has been an All-Star just once in his 14 seasons in the majors. The Orioles need an ace to truly be competitive and Arroyo is not an ace. But the Orioles also need stability in their rotation, and there are very few pitchers who have been as reliable and consistent as Arroyo, who has thrown 199 or more innings in nine consecutive seasons. He has a tremendous work ethic, a relationship with new Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace, and Arroyo’s quirky personality would mesh well with the Orioles’ relaxed clubhouse. Most important, at his age, he’s not looking for a four-year commitment. The Orioles are definitely interested in Arroyo and continue to have dialogue with Arroyo’s representation. The sense is that, if the Orioles would offer three guaranteed years, Arroyo would come to Baltimore. That hasn’t happened yet. It may not, but this is the best bet, in my opinion, for the Orioles to land a free-agent starter of note.
Bruce Chen: The Orioles haven’t been big into reunions under this current management regime, but the Orioles’ brass has talked about Chen internally this offseason and has been in contact with his representation. At 36, the left-hander would be hard pressed to duplicate his 2005 in Baltimore in which he went 13-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 34 games (32 starts). Yet when counted out -- his career appeared all but over after going 0-7 with a 6.93 ERA in 40 games with the Orioles in 2006 -- the resilient Chen rebounds. In his past five seasons, all with the Kansas City Royals, Chen was 45-39 with a 4.32 ERA, including 9-4 with a 3.27 ERA in 34 games (15 starts) last season. Nine times in 15 starts last year he pitched at least six innings and registered a quality start. If the Orioles are looking for a veteran lefty to pitch some innings on a short deal, Chen could be a possibility. But it certainly isn’t the big move Orioles fans are yearning for.
Jason Hammel: We were told that Hammel, the team’s Opening Day starter in 2013, might be an option in 2014 only if the Orioles still had a rotation opening at the end of the winter and Hammel was still looking for a job. Both sides enjoyed their time together, it just seemed like there would be a parting of ways. I’d still bet on that. But it’s January now. The Orioles could do worse than bring back this solid citizen and hard worker.
The field: There are plenty of other names out there -- probably too many to mention. But if the Orioles don’t land any of the above, it’d be surprising if Duquette didn’t look in the veteran scrap heap the way he has done in the past (Jair Jurrjens, Freddy Garcia, etc.) searching for a bargain.
In other Orioles-related news, two 2013 Orioles have landed jobs elsewhere. Catcher Taylor Teagarden signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets and outfielder Chris Dickerson inked a minor league deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates.