As the Orioles focus on rebuilding their starting rotation this offseason, the club will emphasize adding at least one left-handed starter, a goal that could be difficult given the unremarkable free-agent market for lefty arms.
The Orioles own a club option on left-hander Wade Miley. The prospect of the team exercising a $12 million option seemed to be a legitimate possibility going into the final month of the season – especially forecasting the free-agent market for left-handed starters. But Miley posted a 12.56 ERA over his final four starts and it appears the Orioles will send him to free agency by giving him a $500,000 buyout.
While adding a quality left-hander makes sense, the 2016 acquisition of Miley – which was done at the 2016 trade deadline to add to the team’s all-righty rotation – goes to show that balancing a rotation doesn’t necessarily work out.
The Orioles went through most of the 2016 season without a left-handed starter, but the rotation problems had more to do with a lack of production from right-handers Ubaldo Jiménez and Yovani Gallardo. Then, the Orioles added Miley at the deadline, making the rotation situation worse when he posted a 6.17 ERA in 11 starts after coming over in a trade with the Seattle Mariners.
The Orioles haven’t had a consistent, quality left-handed starter since Wei-Yin Chen left via free agency after the 2015 season. Chen went 46-32 with a 3.72 ERA over four seasons with the Orioles, posting a 10.0 WAR over that stretch.
The options are bare internally: The Orioles have left-hander Jayson Aquino, who is out of minor league options this spring, and they could continue to stretch out left-hander Tanner Scott, who didn’t thrown more than 3 2/3 innings in a game last season.
All the possible veteran left-handed starter options on the free-agent market present their risks.
Vargas went 18-11 with a 4.16 ERA for a Kansas City team that didn’t meet expectations in 2017. Vargas pitched 179 2/3 innings and made 32 starts in his first full season coming off Tommy John surgery. He was 12-3 with a 2.62 ERA in 17 starts in the first half, but hit a wall coming out of the break. He went 4-7 with an 8.13 ERA over an 11-start span before finding his footing again in September.
Sabathia’s stock should climb after his regular-season renaissance and strong postseason performance. He could be the best fit for the Orioles because he’s a sage of the American League East – success pitching in the division can’t go unnoticed – and he’s pitched well at Camden Yards (11-7, 3.58 ERA). Sabathia is coming off a big contract that ended with him making $25 million in 2017, but he will be 38 in July, making any multiyear deal a gamble.
From there, the crop of lefties is thin. Jaime García, 31, posted a 4.70 ERA with three different clubs this season – he was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Minnesota Twins to the Yankees — but he’s mostly untested in the AL after spending most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals.
There are plenty of reclamation projects out there as well. (Remember their ill-fated signing of Johan Santana before the 2014 season?) Jorge De La Rosa, 36, could get another run as a starter after pitching out of the bullpen with the Arizona Diamondbacks this season. Veteran Francisco Liriano, who turns 34 this month, is just one year removed from a strong second half with the Toronto Blue Jays, but ended this past season in the Houston Astros bullpen. Hector Santiago, Brett Anderson and Derek Holland are all free-agent starters who throw left-handed coming off seasons of posting ERAs higher than 5.00.
Though lineups in the AL East aren’t as lefty-dominant as they were in the past, the value of having a left-handed starter is real. But given the Orioles’ big rotation concerns, the team will face the decision of how much it values needing a left-handed starter compared to retooling its rotation from the entire pool of available arms.