Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was clear at this month’s winter meetings that any additions made this offseason would not impede the long-term path of the organization’s rising crop of prospects. Last week’s one-year agreement with second baseman and outfielder Adam Frazier certainly aligns with that.
But it also potentially furthers the possibility the club could explore pulling from that prospect stockpile this winter to make trades, which is beginning to look like the only way the Orioles can make a significant upgrade to their rotation this offseason.
At the general manager meetings last month, Elias told reporters the team’s focus was “to bring in an established starter for one of the, let’s say, top three spots in the rotation.” With the likes of Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Carlos Rodón and Chris Bassitt signed, the options to do so via free agency have become limited. Elias somewhat softened this possibility at the winter meetings after the club inked veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson to serve as a back-end rotation piece, saying he wanted another starting pitcher but adding “whether it’s the opening day spot or in the top five somewhere, I don’t know yet.”
But with Frazier joining a starting infield rotation that includes Gunnar Henderson, Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo, the Orioles could have more flexibility to be aggressive in the trade market for starting pitching. The added major league depth will be valued, but Baltimore could perhaps explore moving Mateo or Urías. Frazier, as a left-handed hitter who will see time at second base and possibly the corner outfield spots, presumably takes at-bats away from Kyle Stowers and Terrin Vavra, who received inconsistent playing time in their first major league stints in 2022. Either of those players, having shown an ability to handle major league pitching even in those limited opportunities, could be an attractive piece in a trade package, with varying long-term opportunities for each in Baltimore.
Baltimore’s third draft pick under Elias in 2019 behind eventual top overall prospects Adley Rutschman and Henderson, Stowers offers a powerful left-handed bat and could certainly contend for a spot in the Orioles’ lineup as an outfielder or designated hitter in 2023 and beyond, even with another left-handed outfielder, Colton Cowser, pushing toward a debut. Vavra is in many ways a younger version of Frazier, with perhaps a better eye but similarly possessing strong bat-to-ball skills to compensate for a lack of power. He faces far more challengers for future playing time in Baltimore’s system, with infielders Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz, Connor Norby and Coby Mayo all in the upper minors and ranked among the Orioles’ top 10 prospects according to Baseball America. Vavra, though, is the only left-handed hitter in that group, though 2022 first overall draft pick Jackson Holliday is one, as well, and could prove a fast riser.
That infield depth also represents an obvious area from which to deal. Westburg, Ortiz and Norby all ended 2022 in Triple-A and showed power potential there, though, as right-handed hitters, there are questions of how that could translate to Camden Yards. Ortiz is the only one on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, which could make Westburg or Norby more appealing to another organization for the purposes of roster flexibility.
Parting with any of them would likely require the Orioles to get a significant pitcher back, ideally one under control beyond 2023. The Milwaukee Brewers have two in right-handers Corbin Burners and Brandon Woodruff, but it’s unclear how willing to sell they are after having the best record of last year’s 18 teams that missed the postseason. The Cleveland Guardians, the only 2022 playoff team with a yearend payroll beneath $98 million according to Spotrac, are in a similar spot, with four of their starting pitchers being arbitration-eligible, including ace Shane Bieber.
Trades to land that quality of pitcher are rare, especially in the offseason rather than at the trade deadline, but examples show the level of talent Baltimore would have to part with. The Kansas City Royals traded two years of 26-year-old Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke before the 2011 season for four young players, three of whom had already made their debuts. Baseball America ranked pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress as Milwaukee’s Nos. 1 and 3 prospects entering the 2011 season, while shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielder Lorenzo Cain were ranked first and eighth in the system the year before.
Before he was the recipient of the sport’s largest contract for a pitcher, Gerrit Cole was a former No. 1 overall draft pick with three above-average seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates, including one top-five finish in Cy Young Award voting. It cost the Houston Astros four players for two years of Cole before the 2018 season: two members of their major league pitching staff in starter Joe Musgrove and reliever Michael Feliz and their Nos. 9 and 19 prospects, infielder Colin Moran and outfielder Jason Martin.
2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell had three more years on a team-friendly contract when the Tampa Bay Rays dealt him after the 2020 season to the San Diego Padres, once again for a four-player package. San Diego’s featured Luis Patiño, its No. 2 prospect, recent high draftees in catcher Blake Hunt and right-hander Cole Wilcox, and catcher Francisco Mejía, a former top 20 overall prospect who had been in the majors for parts of four seasons.
Each trade required a combination of players who had reached the majors or top prospects who were near doing so.
“We have the farm system to do it,” Elias said at the winter meetings. “Doesn’t mean we want to lose those guys or give them away, but I think we have the capital to trade for basically anyone who’s on the market. Just whether or not we’re gonna want to meet the acquisition cost of some of these players versus the alternatives in free agency, so we’re going to be simultaneously looking at free agent and trading pursuits when it comes to the rotation.”
Right-hander Nathan Eovaldi is perhaps the last remaining free agent who would automatically slot near the top of Baltimore’s rotation, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting him to receive a two-year, $34 million deal. Having rejected a qualifying offer from the Boston Red Sox, Eovaldi would cost the Orioles their third 2023 draft pick should they sign him, though Elias said that is “not going to make us turn away from anybody.” But like much else about the organization’s rebuilding process, that will be far more believable once it actually happens.
If Baltimore misses out on him as they have other options, a trade would be its lone path to landing a top starter. With Frazier in the fold, the Orioles could have the flexibility to pull one off.