When the Orioles returned four players to their 40-man roster Sunday, they turned a metaphorical crater into a gaping hole.
Reinstating left-hander Keegan Akin, right-hander Jorge López, infielder Jorge Mateo and outfielder DJ Stewart from the 60-day injured list brought Baltimore’s 40-man roster to 31. Since the regular season ended, the Orioles have put 14 players on waivers, while veteran pitchers Matt Harvey and Fernando Abad reached free agency.
In all, the 16 players who came off the 40-man roster in the offseason’s first month include 12 pitchers who accounted for more than a quarter of Baltimore’s innings this season, as well as three catchers who were behind the plate for all but 159 ⅔ frames this season. The exodus has left the Orioles with no backstops on their 40-man roster.
But plenty of time remains for executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias to address that area and others. Although Elias has already openly admitted that the Orioles won’t be shopping at the top of the free-agent market, they figure to add a veteran infielder on a short deal as they have the past two offseasons, with some minor signings to bolster the pitching staff expected, as well. At least one catcher, preferably a veteran open to serving as a backup once top prospect Adley Rutschman arrives, would be a logical addition, too.
Yet those nine openings aren’t set aside for free agents. The Orioles must add a handful of prospects to the 40-man roster to prevent them from becoming available to other teams in the Rule 5 draft, with pitchers DL Hall, Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith and infielder Terrin Vavra the most noteworthy among those eligible and most likely to receive that treatment. It stands to reason the Orioles will leave some 40-man spots open to make their own selections in the Rule 5 draft; Baltimore has taken two players in the major league phase each of the past three years under Elias.
It should be noted Baltimore isn’t spending the offseason operating in the vacuum. Even if the Orioles aren’t particularly active this winter, other teams will make moves that prompt them to remove players from their 40-man rosters, and by virtue of finishing with the league’s worst record in 2021, Baltimore will effectively have first dibs on the waiver wire throughout the offseason. To add any players who fall off another team’s roster, the Orioles must have or make a spot for them on their own, though they’ve generally managed to find a way to do so with relative ease. Nearly a fifth of the Orioles’ current 40-man roster is made up of players who were claimed on waivers.
With that said and with Baltimore’s post-World Series housekeeping completed, here’s a quick look at where things stand for each position group on their 40-man roster:
Catchers (0): none
The Orioles outrighted Austin Wynns, Pedro Severino and Nick Ciuffo in rapid succession over the past couple of weeks. Only Ciuffo didn’t enter free agency as a result, though he is now a pending minor league free agent. Should he remain with the organization, he figures to have the chance to break camp with the club come spring depending on what other additions are made. Ideally, the Orioles simply elect to have Rutschman serve as their Opening Day catcher, but under the current CBA — which expires Dec. 1 — there’s not a long-term incentive for them to do so.
Infielders (9): Rylan Bannon, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Jahmai Jones, Trey Mancini, Richie Martin, Jorge Mateo, Ryan Mountcastle, Tyler Nevin, Ramón Urías
The biggest question mark here is whether the Orioles elect to hang onto Mancini, who will be a free agent after 2022 and is due a large raise as he enters his final year of salary arbitration. He largely served a designated hitter down the stretch as he began to feel the physical wear of returning from colon cancer, with Mountcastle handling the load at first base. While Urías, Mateo and Gutiérrez made solid impressions with Baltimore, neither Martin nor Jones capitalized on their auditions. Bannon never got one, struggling in Triple-A outside of a two-week home run binge, while Nevin got a taste of the majors, hitting his first career home run on the final day of the season.
Outfielders (6): Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, DJ Stewart
If healthy, Hays, Mullins and Santander are locks to serve as Baltimore’s starting outfielders in 2022, with the one stipulation being that Santander, as an arbitration-eligible player, doesn’t get moved or non-tendered. The Orioles could’ve put Stewart on waivers rather than reinstate him from the 60-day IL, which is how they handled fellow former first-round pick Hunter Harvey, but they instead retained a player who not only has the best eye of any of their batters but also provides another left-handed option for manager Brandon Hyde. All of the infielders above, for example, bat right-handed.
Starting pitchers (7): Keegan Akin, Michael Baumann, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, John Means, Alexander Wells, Bruce Zimmermann
Chris Ellis made six effective starts for the Orioles after coming over as a waiver claim from the Tampa Bay Rays, but that effort wasn’t enough to avoid landing back on the waiver wire; no other team claimed Ellis, and he became a free agent. The move leaves the Orioles’ rotation candidates as All-Star John Means and a bevy of young pitchers, none of whom posted an ERA below 5.00 as rookies in 2021. Elias has shown a penchant for signing older pitchers to minor league deals to assist in this area.
Relief pitchers (9): Paul Fry, Joey Krehbiel, Brooks Kriske, Jorge López, Isaac Mattson, Tanner Scott, Cole Sulser, Dillon Tate, Tyler Wells
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Orioles clearing out their pitching staff isn’t who they let go, but who they held onto. As late-season waiver claims, both Krehbiel and Kriske figured to be among potential cuts as Baltimore looked to open roster spots, but each survived — at least for now. Fry, López and Scott are all eligible for arbitration for the first time, with each enduring severe ups and downs in 2021. If all three return, most of the Orioles’ 2022 bullpen should already be in place, with that trio joining Sulser, Tate and Wells.