This isn’t the first time in recent years the Orioles will enter the spring training report day for pitchers and catchers with their starting rotation very much unsettled. It’s actually been commonplace to think going into the opening days of camp that the storyline will be focused on who has yet to arrive at the Ed Smith Stadium complex rather than the arms who are there.
The Orioles already have 35 pitchers on a big league camp roster short on starting experience. The number will likely grow over the next few weeks, because they are a team that typically makes acquisitions well into spring training. Executive vice president Dan Duquette predicted much of the same this year, placing a March 1 deadline on pitching acquisitions.
An uncharacteristically slow market that has left nearly 30 free-agent starting pitchers unsigned as most teams open spring training Tuesday and Wednesday creates much more competition for the Orioles during their usual feasting season. But the club maintains it will attempt to acquire at least two pitchers — whether by signing or trade — before the end of the month.
The Orioles have long been reluctant to dip into the starting pitching free-agent pool, not willing to take on the inherent risk many long-term deals with pitchers who have at least six years of wear and tear on their arms possess. But that changed slightly four springs ago when the team signed right-hander Ubaldo Jiménez to a four-year, $50 million deal that was both the longest and richest the club ever gave to a free-agent starter.
Two years later, the Orioles signed right-hander Yovani Gallardo to a two-year contract that guaranteed him $22 million. It was a deal that was restructured from three years with an option to two years and an option after concerns with his shoulder were found during a club physical.
Both signings came well into spring training.
The Orioles signed those players for their track records of durability. They wanted a veteran starter who could pitch close to 200 innings, and both Jiménez and Gallardo had built those sorts of resumes. Jiménez came to Baltimore having averaged 198 innings over his previous six seasons, and Gallardo averaged 191 innings over a seven-year span.
In an Orioles world built on trying to ensure the most value for the money spent — predicated on strict physical exams that aimed to predict whether the pitchers would remain sturdy over the full length of the deal — and even though both pitchers were on the wrong side of their 30th birthday, those two signings offered the least amount of risk on paper.
Ultimately, the moves didn’t work out. Jiménez sent the Orioles on a roller coaster for four seasons full of mostly deep falls, bumping him in and out of the rotation. Had there been a viable option for the rotation, he might not have survived the extent of his deal, but he played it out. Gallardo appeared to be affected by his late arrival to camp, showed up with disturbingly diminished velocity and quickly landed on the disabled list. His tenure with the Orioles lasted just one year, as the team shipped him to Seattle, along with $2 million to cover his buyout for platoon outfielder Seth Smith last offseason.
If there’s anything the Orioles learned from those deals — at least in their own eyes — it was that the long-term commitments don’t work, and Duquette has said that flatly this offseason as well, which is why it remains unlikely the Orioles will make a free-agent pitcher an offer of more than two years guaranteed as they attempt to rebuild their rotation.
So the six-year guarantee — as well as the $21 million average annual value (Jiménez averaged $15 million) — that Yu Darvish, the top free-agent starter out there, received from the Chicago Cubs isn’t a good thing for an Orioles team looking for short-term commitments. Former Oriole Jake Arrieta is out of play, as will be right-handers Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn unless their demands go down significantly.
With those starters off the board, others such as right-hander Andrew Cashner and left-hander Jaime García realistically top the Orioles’ wish list as the team heads into spring training. But even with those pitchers, the club is hesitant to give a multiyear commitment, according to a source.
After that, it’s veterans such as John Lackey, Jason Vargas and Scott Feldman — pitchers well into their 30s who have eaten innings over their careers — that the Orioles have also discussed as spring approaches. But those signings would also only likely come on one-year deals, according to a source.
That might be why the most likely free agent arriving in camp the next few days could be Chris Tillman, who continued to work out at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. If the Orioles are convinced Tillman, who has spent nine seasons with the team, is healthy and poised to rebound from a rocky 2017 season — and make no mistake, part of the reason he has been working out at the Orioles facility is to gauge that up close — a make-good one-year deal could offer the least risk of all.
It also coincides with the trend that the Orioles will have few commitments beyond 2018, and face a major overhaul in all facets of the organization. Jiménez and Gallardo were expected to be cornerstones of the rotation for several years. That wouldn’t be the case with additions made this offseason.
But one thing is clear: The Orioles don’t intend to dole out any long-term commitments, maybe not even more than a one-year deal, to the existing free-agent crop as spring training approaches. As some of the high-profile arms come off the board, the market will set itself, and the Orioles’ hope is there’s some short-term deals to be had at the end.
Important dates on the Orioles’ calendar this spring
Pitchers and catchers report: Tuesday
First workout: Wednesday
Position players report: Feb. 18
First full-squad workout: Feb. 19
First exhibition game: Feb. 23 vs. Rays, 1:05 p.m.
Final exhibition game at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla.: March 24 vs. the Twins
Final exhibition game in Florida: March 25 vs. the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla.
Opening Day: March 29 vs. Twins, 3:05 p.m. at Camden Yards