As Orioles head to winter meetings, they realize retooling rotation will be a challenge

With several of the Orioles’ cornerstone players eligible to become free agents after the 2018 season, the dilemma of whether the club should rebuild or reload will linger throughout the offseason. And whether the Orioles can return to respectability after this year’s last-place division finish centers on the front office’s ability to retool a starting rotation that had the worst ERA in the majors in 2017.

The Orioles are likely to arrive Sunday at the annual winter meetings at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., without having done much to address their biggest offseason need. They have three rotation spots to fill — right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are the Orioles’ only returning starters — and will need additional depth to survive the rigors of a full season. But the team has yet to sign a starting pitcher to a major league contract.

This offseason’s free-agent market has been slow-moving, especially as teams waited for big-ticket items such as Japanese two-way import Shohei Ohtani and reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton to find new homes. But this week, the pitching dominoes began to fall with Ohtani deciding to sign with the Los Angeles Angels on Friday and the New York Yankees agreeing to a trade for Stanton on Saturday, indicating the hot stove should heat up this upcoming week in Florida.

The Orioles are usually deliberate in their offseason approach, and they’ve rarely been a true player for the annual free-agent market’s top arms. But recent pitching signings show that the pace is picking up as clubs descend on the winter meetings, and the Orioles might have to do so as well.

“There’s a significant demand for the pitchers who are in the current free-agent class,” Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “And I think that’s been reflected in a couple of signings that we’ve seen so far. … I think the market is going to be dynamic, and we’ll have to monitor the market and make recommendations to get some of these pitchers signed for the club.”

What complicates it all is that the upcoming season could be the last with several core players. Third baseman Manny Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, closer Zach Britton and setup man Brad Brach are only under contract through 2018, so any long-term move must be done with that in mind. Duquette and manager Buck Showalter will also be in the final year of their deals in 2018 as well.

When Duquette laid out his offseason blueprint in October, he said the Orioles would have to be creative in rebuilding their starting rotation, which posted a 5.70 ERA this past season. He compared the process to what the team did to return to the playoffs in 2012, when Duquette made a number of savvy moves before the season.

In his first offseason with the Orioles, Duquette made several unheralded moves that reaped tremendous rewards, signing Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen out of Japan to a deal that cost the team just over $15 million over four years. He also acquired right-hander Jason Hammel in a trade for Jeremy Guthrie and signed right-hander Miguel González, who was toiling in the Mexican League. Those three acquisitions, combined with right-hander Chris Tillman’s emergence in the second half of the 2012 season, made up four-fifths of the rotation of a playoff team that won 93 games and came within a win of going to the American League Championship Series.

But Duquette conceded this past week that a rotation reassembly like that will not be as easy this time around because more teams seem to have locked up their quality starting pitchers and the free-agent market is showing signs of being higher-priced.

“This is a bigger challenge. This will be a bigger challenge,” Duquette said. “It looks to me like there’s 28 teams looking for pitching. The market has creeped up since then. … I think clubs are valuing their players a little bit more.”

Going into this week, it was still unclear how the starting pitching market would shake out. Just before the season ended, left-hander Clayton Richard signed a two-year, $6 million extension to remain with the San Diego Padres and right-hander Marco Estrada inked a one-year, $13 million deal to stay with the Toronto Blue Jays. Despite a large gap in annual salary, the two pitchers had similar seasons. Both had ERAs in the high 4.00s, threw more than 180 innings and were just 0.3 apart in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.

In recent days, clubs are beginning to sign free-agent starting pitchers based more on potential than track record. The Chicago Cubs signed right-hander Tyler Chatwood to a three-year $38 million deal and the St. Louis Cardinals signed right-hander Miles Mikolas to a two-year, $15.5 million deal.

Both players were targeted by the Orioles, but it is unknown how far along the team progressed in its pursuit before they landed elsewhere. Chatwood, who turns 28 this month, was a 1.1-win pitcher last season with the Colorado Rockies and, like Richard and Estrada, posted an ERA in the high 4.00s. His home-road splits were dramatically one-sided favoring the road, indicating he could perform better when hitter-friendly Coors Field is not his home ballpark.

As for Mikolas, the Cardinals’ commitment to him is based on the faith that he will duplicate the success he had pitching for the Yomiuri Giants of the Japan Central League. The 29-year-old went 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA over three seasons in Japan after posting a 5.32 ERA in 91 1/3 major league innings from 2012 to 2014.

The Orioles also missed out on right-hander Mike Fiers, who had been nontendered by the Houston Astros, when he chose to sign a one-year, $6 million deal with the rebuilding Detroit Tigers this past week over a reported two-year offer from the Orioles, according to ESPN. Fiers, 32, turned down guaranteed money for a second year for a one-year deal that gives him the opportunity to earn a raise through the arbitration process next year.

Mikolas’ deal signals that discounts the Orioles received on the international market before the 2012 season aren’t as plentiful as last year. Mikolas will make an average of $7.75 million, while the Orioles paid Chen an average of less than $4 million over four years.

That trend also spells trouble for the Orioles’ hopes of acquiring the top second-tier free-agent starting pitchers — right-handers Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn. Those two pitchers are considered the next-best options behind big fish Yu Darvish and former Oriole Jake Arrieta, and were projected to earn contracts in the neighborhood of four years and $50 million at the beginning of the offseason.

But the sudden spike in the market could mean they might be more expensive, especially after the teams that didn’t land Ohtani look to open their checkbooks for other options.

If the price of those markets rise just slightly — depending on who you ask, they already have — the Orioles would have to make an unprecedented commitment, bigger than the four-year, $50 million deal given to Ubaldo Jiménez before the 2014 season. That contract still stands as the most lucrative deal the Orioles have given to a free-agent starting pitcher.

That all combines to present a challenging situation for the Orioles in their pursuit of starting pitching — both at the winter meetings and in the weeks that follow — as the team faces a pivotal offseason in which the question will remain whether to rebuild or reload.

“We’re going to see what we can do to add some depth and get some more pitchers for our ballclub for next year,” Duquette said. “I think you have to look at your overall depth. We’ve tried to sign a number of players to minor league contracts to add some depth to our pitching staff. So that’s the first step, and now we’ll have to add some more pitchers hopefully with some major league experience.”

eencina@baltsun.com

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