Throughout the 2022 season, manager Brandon Hyde and Orioles teammates frequently praised the influence veterans Jordan Lyles, Rougned Odor and Robinson Chirinos — all free agents signed the preceding offseason — had on a clubhouse full of players experiencing winning at the major league level for the first time.
But their leadership did not always translate to on-field results. Lyles was a stabilizing force in Baltimore’s rotation and offered “more than exactly what we hoped for when we signed him,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said at the end of the year, but that still resulted in the fifth-best ERA among the Orioles’ starters.
Hyde was enamored with Odor’s ability to turn a double play at second base, and he seemed to have a knack for clutch moments, but overall, he rated negatively defensively while hitting no better than .207 with a sub-.300 on-base percentage for the fourth straight year.
Chirinos was praised for his work guiding a young pitching staff and serving as a mentor to top prospect Adley Rutschman, but he performed the worst of any qualified catcher in framing borderline pitches into strikes, according to Baseball Savant, while posting the third-lowest OPS of those with at least 200 plate appearances.
The Orioles are two-thirds of the way to upgrading that group this offseason, even if they’re doing so at a lesser level than anticipated. On Thursday, Baltimore signed infielder-outfielder Adam Frazier, primarily a second baseman, to a one-year, $8 million contract, less than two weeks after reaching an agreement with right-hander Kyle Gibson on a $10 million deal for 2023. The deals represent the organization’s two largest guarantees to free agents during Elias’ four-year tenure.
Baltimore missed the postseason by three games in 2022 by going 83-79, a 31-game improvement from the previous year. Although the Orioles are seeking another addition to their rotation beyond Gibson, it’s possible their young nucleus plus improvements on Lyles (in the form of Gibson), Odor (in the form of Frazier) and Chirinos (with a to-be-determined backup catcher) could alone be enough for them to reach the postseason.
Gibson had a higher ERA than Lyles in 2022, but his expected metrics in that regard were superior. He also posted a higher strikeout rate and groundball rate with a similar walk rate. In giving Gibson, 35, an eight-figure salary, the Orioles paid him the same amount they effectively decided not to pay Lyles, declining his $11 million option and giving him a $1 million buyout.
“Our jobs as front office evaluators is to look at what we think is gonna happen in the future and not what somebody’s baseball card numbers were last season, and we saw a lot of things, to us, that project well into the future for Kyle,” Elias said last week. “I think he’s going to have a really nice season for us.”
After the deal, Gibson noted that Lyles, who he pitched alongside with the Texas Rangers, helped convince him to join Baltimore. He also joked about being the only player on the Orioles’ roster born before 1992. Frazier, who turned 31 on Wednesday, joins him by under three weeks and, like Gibson, is coming off a down season following an All-Star appearance in 2021. He posted lows for a full season in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and home runs. But with the exception of home runs, Frazier outperformed or matched Odor in the expected versions of each metric, suggesting superior quality of contact, while walking more often and striking out nearly half as much.
The two second basemen posted similar below-average marks in weighted runs created plus, an all-encompassing offensive metric that compares a hitter to the leaguewide performance, but Frazier did so while playing better defense. He was eighth among the 38 qualified second basemen with six outs above average, according to Baseball Savant, while Odor was 34th at minus-5.
The Orioles’ infield ranked 13th in the majors in collective outs above average; replacing Odor with Frazier would have lifted them into a tie for fourth, and the group should be a defensive strength in 2023. Frazier is expected to tandem in some fashion with Ramón Urías, who won the American League Gold Glove at third base in 2022 but will likely cede that position to top prospect Gunnar Henderson, considered a plus defender, in 2023. Jorge Mateo, who won the Fielding Bible Award as the top defensive shortstop in baseball, will man that position again to start the year, with Henderson and Urías capable of filing in. Frazier also has experience in the outfield and could fill in at one of the corners or at designated hitter.
A new backup for Rutschman remains a clear need, especially with the phenom currently the only catcher on the Orioles’ full 40-man roster. Elias has described 125 games behind the plate as the “upper bound” of what Baltimore might ask of Rutschman in his first full major league season, which would leave at least a quarter of the games for another backstop.
Elias said last week that he would likely wait out the catching market before making any moves, given that starting-level catchers were expected to be on the trade market. Within the week, the Oakland Athletics sent Sean Murphy to the Atlanta Braves in a three-team deal in which Atlanta dispensed two of its major league catchers. The Toronto Blue Jays also have three quality backstops and are believed to be exploring trading them.
With the motion there, it’s possible the Orioles make their move soon, though there’s no rush with about two months to go until spring training. Last year, they signed Chirinos on the cusp of reporting to camp, though that was also a byproduct of the work stoppage that delayed spring training. If Baltimore prioritizes defense, Roberto Perez and Austin Hedges are potential free agent fits.
Baltimore figures to have natural internal upgrades, as well, most notably in the form of full seasons of Rutschman and Henderson and possibly top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. Given the up-and-down nature of the seasons Urías, Mateo, Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle had, more consistency from that group, perhaps in line with last year’s production from Anthony Santander, could also lead to improvements in the win-loss column.
Lyles, Odor and Chirinos collectively cost the Orioles about $8.6 million in 2022, and Baltimore has already spent more than double that with their commitments to Gibson and Frazier, though the moves still do not take the team to a payroll in line with most other contenders. But given how close to the postseason last year’s club got with an even lower figure, it’s possible these incremental improvements could prove enough for a playoff berth.