Orioles fortunate they don't have to dive into weak free-agent class of starting pitchers

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
This isn't a year where the Orioles are scouring a thin pitching market. That's a good thing for everyone.

Free agency continued to take shape around baseball Monday with qualifying offers being issued to 10 players, and one look at the market means the Orioles are fortunate their offseason priorities differ drastically from years past.

Over the past several winters, the Orioles have needed to secure a starting pitcher above all else. Though some of the returners at that position don’t inspire the most confidence, the Orioles have no such problem this offseason. Considering who’s available, that’s a good thing.

Come February, the Orioles will have Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley in the fold and competing for starting spots. That surplus will prevent them from having to dip into a pitching market headlined by Rich Hill, Jeremy Hellickson, Ivan Nova and Bartolo Colon.

As a result of teams locking up their top pitchers before reaching free agency and the general paucity of attractive starting pitching, clubs in need will inevitably talk themselves into these pitchers being better than they are to justify signing them. They need pitching, after all.

But if you want to project who the Orioles would be targeting, think of how Jimenez and Gallardo ended up in Baltimore over the past few years. Once many of the top starters had signed over-market deals, there were only a handful of pitchers left, and those two in particular had turned down qualifying offers that meant they had draft-pick compensation attached to them.

The Orioles bit anyway, and have gotten two good half-seasons out of three full ones from Jimenez to start a four-year, $50 million deal. Jimenez has provided a total of 4.7 wins above replacement (WAR) as he has pitched to a 4.72 ERA with the Orioles. Gallardo got a two-year deal this past offseason instead of a three-year deal after a problem with his physical, and made just 23 starts this year because of shoulder weakness, posting a 5.42 ERA.

Only one starting pitcher got a qualifying offer this year — the Phillies' Hellickson — which could affect his value should he decide to turn it down. But except for a team overpaying him early, his qualifying offer could dictate that he’d be around when the Orioles prefer to do business later in the offseason.

Luckily for them — or unfortunately, depending on your view of the pitchers who will return — the Orioles have no need to dip into the market. The long-term deals for Jimenez and Gallardo, plus the July 31 trade for Miley, gave them a veteran group to carry into the future.

There are no guarantees that Jimenez, Gallardo or Miley (who had a 5.37 ERA with the Seattle Mariners and Orioles in 2016) will take steps forward in 2017 that make them better than what a free agent could add. Nor is there any guarantee that the returning starters will be around by the start of spring training.

The only thing certain is the Orioles aren’t lined up for a three-month courtship of starting pitchers, and that’s a breath of fresh air this offseason that could make this winter a different one.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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