SAN DIEGO — As Orioles executives arrived at the Manchester Grand Hyatt for Major League Baseball’s winter meetings, the team’s fans hoped a splash. Instead, the front office left San Diego having supplied only a dose of reality.
During the week, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias gave more direct assessment of his plans to increase the Orioles’ payroll, saying this offseason would represent the first step in a steady increase rather than the point from which it skyrockets. Two months remain in the offseason, and Elias made sure that was clear as he prepared to head back to Baltimore with the club’s only additions of the week being a back-end starter, a Rule 5 reliever and a handful of minor league signings.
“We still have a great deal of players out there,” Elias said. “It’s just really beginning of the offseason, so whether or not something comes together in the next day or two, I think there was a lot of information gleaned here.”
Some of that information might come to light in time. But for now, here are five things we learned from the Orioles’ time at the winter meetings.
It will be a quieter winter than hoped.
From the moment Elias declared “it’s liftoff from here” in the same post-trade deadline interview in which he said the Orioles would try to make significant additions this offseason, an idea was understandably planted in the minds of fans — even though that wasn’t the intent. The phrase became further entangled when, at the end of the season, Elias said “more significant investments in the major league payroll” were coming. “Liftoff” became a measuring stick.
That concept was countered quickly and often this week in San Diego, with Elias reiterating Monday that he used that word in reference to the state of the organization moving forward, not as a telegraph of its winter plans, before saying Wednesday that the Orioles won’t “flip a light switch” to maximize their payroll or playoff odds for 2023. Unless they deviate from that, the rest of the offseason figures to be a gauge of the veracity of Elias’ declarations.
Baltimore’s $10 million deal with veteran starting pitcher Kyle Gibson is comfortably the largest guarantee Elias has given to a free agent in his four years on the job, and it brought the Orioles’ projected opening day payroll more than 20% above last year’s mark. But a bump that still leaves the Orioles among the two lowest payrolls in the sport shouldn’t qualify as “significant.”
Their young core will be tested.
Manager Brandon Hyde described the state of the Orioles’ current roster succinctly but effectively.
“We have talented dudes,” Hyde said this week.
And largely, those dudes will be expected to carry Baltimore to playoffs, with Elias saying any additions, particularly on the position player side, will “supplement, … not block” the organization’s young talent.
The Orioles will benefit from full seasons of former No. 1 overall prospects Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson. The same could be true of top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, with another wave of minor league talent coming, too. After up-and-down seasons, Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays could be more consistent contributors, while Anthony Santander might improve upon a season in which he led all switch-hitters in home runs. Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish and Tyler Wells will all get the opportunity to build on their stretches of success in the Orioles’ rotation.
“We have a lot of internal talent in the organization, especially on a position player side to sort of plan forward, and we don’t want to run into a situation where we’re having to trade some of our core players away because we’ve signed a guy to take their spot,” Elias said. “It just doesn’t make much sense to us right now. I think we’re still on a very hopeful part of things, given the upward curve here for the organization. We feel great about where we’re at, and we want to be really careful and strategic about building on this group that we have.”
The rotation is a long way from being finalized.
Baltimore’s front office spent much of its time in San Diego seeking another starting pitcher, having finalized Gibson’s agreement Monday. Multiple free agents who would easily slot at the top of the Orioles’ rotation remain available, with Carlos Rodón, Chris Bassitt and Kodai Senga being the most notable of that group. Elias, though, noted in an interview with MLB Network Radio that Baltimore believes pitchers worsen after the first season of multi-year contracts and that the club is factoring that possibility into any pursuits.
Regardless of whether the Orioles actually add one more starter, they’ll head to Sarasota, Florida, in two months with plenty to decide about their rotation. With Gibson assured a spot if healthy, there are for now four openings for a group of contenders most likely to feature Kremer, Bradish, Wells, Austin Voth, Rodriguez and Hall.
Elias noted the Orioles aren’t prioritizing relievers this offseason, figuring that some of those rotation candidates could transition into bullpen roles. Wells, Voth and Hall have varying amounts of major league relief experience, with Hyde saying Hall, Baltimore’s No. 2 pitching prospect, would be stretched out “to be at least a multiple-inning guy” in spring before any decision on a role was made.
“As it stands, the way it is right now, I feel good about our guys,” Hyde said. “The more depth you can have in the rotation obviously the better. We’ve got to stay fortunate with injuries, and you always worry about things in spring training. But right now, the core guys we have rotation-wise had a lot of success that second half. And we want to see them build on it.”
The difficulty of the AL East remains a barrier.
This is true to the point that, when asked whether his efforts to improve Baltimore’s playoff odds this winter would be to the level that the Orioles could be classified as favorites for the American League East, Elias quickly dismissed the possibility.
“Look, in the division that we’re in and the teams that were at the top of the division this year, where we came from last year, I think it’s really hard to sit there and chart a course and say, ‘We’re likely to win the division,’” Elias said. “Now, you see young teams pop all the time, and that’s going to be our goal when spring training breaks, but with as daunting as the American League East is, I think our goal this year is to make the playoffs and put ourselves in a better position to make the playoffs, and that’s been the stated goal.”
The Orioles were the best AL team that didn’t make the playoffs but still finished fourth in their division, 16 games behind the New York Yankees for first place. Without major additions, it’s hard to envision them making up that gap, especially after the Yankees shelled out $360 million to retain reigning AL Most Valuable Player Aaron Judge.
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The Boston Red Sox made moves to improve and could pursue more in the wake of losing shortstop Xander Bogaerts. The Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays were relatively quiet, but both, like the Orioles, have young talent that figures to take a step forward in 2023.
Gunnar Henderson’s home is on the left side.
In the final weeks before promoting Henderson for the stretch run, the Orioles had him experiment on the right side of the infield in Triple-A Norfolk. Before that stretch, he had played only five professional innings as a second baseman and none at first.
The organization pitched it as a way to increase his versatility in a playoff race, but it also read as an excuse to keep him in the minors long enough such that he would retain his rookie eligibility into the offseason. Once called up, Henderson spent only three games at second base. This week, Hyde expressed regret that it was even that many.
“That was probably unfair to him, honestly, when I did that,” Hyde said. “It was mainly because I wanted to get all those guys in the lineup at the same time, and Ramón [Urías] was playing so well at third base. Kind of put Gunnar in a tough spot, honestly.
“He’s already played two. To put him in a third, I wish that wouldn’t have happened.”
Henderson is regarded as an above-average shortstop and a plus defender at third base, and there’s no reason for the Orioles to ask him to be anything else. He’ll spend 2023 on the left side of Baltimore’s infield, which has flexibility elsewhere. Incumbents Jorge Mateo and Urías have established themselves as valuable, but not quite core, players. Elias is in the market for a left-handed hitter who would be a regular for Baltimore, with second base perhaps the most logical fit and Adam Frazier being the best available candidate in that case. But a wave of infield prospects is coming, and Elias was clear he doesn’t want to block them. Including Henderson, six of Baltimore’s top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America, are infielders, with all but one — 2022 first-overall draft pick Jackson Holliday — having reached Double-A.
“I do think we’re gonna want to take advantage of the fact that we’ve got this positional group that we have right now in the organization,” Elias said. “I think it allows us to be a little bit choosy.”