In claiming outfielder/first baseman Chris Shaw on waivers last week, the Orioles perhaps made the more interesting move in whom they elected to remove from their 40-man roster to create space.
Right-hander Thomas Eshelman, an effective swingman for Baltimore in 2020, was designated for assignment to open a spot for Shaw, whose power has yet to translate from the minors to the majors. But when the Orioles needed a 40-man opening a week earlier, they ejected a player who had already had some success, designating for assignment Renato Núñez, their leader in home runs over the past two seasons, to protect six prospects from the Rule 5 draft.
In explaining the decision, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias put it plainly: The Orioles did not plan to tender a contract to Núñez, who was eligible for arbitration for the first time. The same day Baltimore claimed Shaw and designated Eshelman, Núñez was released and entered free agency.
Unlike Núñez, Eshelman is not yet eligible for arbitration, the salary-raising process for majors leaguers with enough service time to qualify. In designating Eshelman rather than another one of their arbitration-eligible players, the Orioles perhaps showed that the other choices they’ll have to make by Wednesday’s non-tender deadline aren’t as clear-cut as the one on Núñez. If they had firmly decided to non-tender one of their remaining arbitration-eligible players come Wednesday, they effectively could’ve done so in advance when they added Shaw.
That’s not to say all of the Orioles’ arbitration-eligible players — several of whom are waiver claims who have become fixtures of this rebuild’s early seasons — will still be members of the organization past Wednesday. But it at least indicates the difficulty of the choices in front of them.
Disregarding Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander — the past two Most Valuable Oriole honorees and near locks to be tendered — here’s an alphabetical look at each of the Orioles’ players who are eligible for arbitration and who Baltimore might replace them with if they’re let go.
Since Alberto’s offseason odyssey that saw him get claimed on waivers four times, including twice by Baltimore, he’s established himself as a fan favorite. The energetic infielder has been a positive force for the Orioles, both on the field and in the clubhouse. He was Baltimore’s 2020 nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, recognizing a player’s humanitarian efforts, and he’s batted .394 against left-handed pitching over his two years as an Oriole.
But in his second year of arbitration, MLB Trade Rumors projects him to earn over $2 million in 2021, and with the Orioles having other options on their infield, including two of their other arbitration-eligible players, they could decide Alberto is too expensive to keep. An interesting possibility: Rylan Bannon, one of the prospects the Orioles acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Manny Machado, can play second and third, like Alberto, and bats right-handed, like Alberto. In 2019, he posted a .904 OPS against left-handed pitchers between Double-A and Triple-A.
It speaks to the inexperience of the Orioles’ pitching staff that Armstrong is the only arbitration-eligible member of it. When not dealing with a back injury, the right-hander had a 1.80 ERA across 15 innings, striking out 14 and allowing only one home run.
But 12 of his 14 appearances began either before the seventh inning or with the Orioles facing a deficit. Manager Brandon Hyde could certainly funnel those middle-relief outings to younger — and cheaper — alternatives. Isaac Mattson, for example, was the most experienced of four minor league pitchers the Orioles added in trading Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels; he’s struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings in his minor league career. Non-tendering Armstrong would save the Orioles only a few hundred thousand dollars, but it could also mean more outings for younger pitchers.
Potential replacements: Isaac Mattson, Travis Lakins Jr., Cole Sulser
Unlike the other members of the list, Sánchez didn’t spend last season as a member of the organization. A Gold Glove second baseman in 2019, Sánchez was non-tendered that offseason, with the Chicago White Sox deeming his .656 career OPS at the time not worth the raise he was otherwise due. He eventually made his way back to Chicago, but Baltimore claimed him in October.
A middle infield featuring Sánchez and José Iglesias is a tantalizing thought defensively, but the Orioles might not be able to look past his lackluster bat. It’s not necessarily an either-or choice between he and Alberto; it’s possible they coexist as starting infielders, or the Orioles might elect to use Sánchez in more of a utility role, with his brief experience at shortstop being beneficial.
Potential replacements: Pat Valaika, Ramón Urías, Richie Martin, Rylan Bannon
Had there been an All-Star Game in 2020, Severino might’ve been the AL’s starting catcher. At the season’s midpoint, he was batting .333 with a .981 OPS. But in what was technically the second half, he hit .165, managed only two extra-base hits and struck out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances. Defensively, his five passed balls allowed tied for the most in the majors.
If the Orioles non-tender Severino, they likely would be choosing to give former top prospect Chance Sisco the bulk of time behind the plate, while Austin Wynns, who spent 2020 in the player pool but never joined the major league roster, or a yet-to-be-signed veteran catcher, such as Bryan Holaday this past season, serve as the backup. Adley Rutschman’s debut is ever nearing, but it’s not quite close enough for the former No. 1 overall pick to be an immediate replacement should the Orioles let Severino go.
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Valaika’s offseason journey to Baltimore would’ve been unique if he wasn’t simply repeating Alberto’s steps, spending time with four organizations and being claimed by the Orioles twice.
Valaika ended up as one of Baltimore’s bright spots, posting a .791 OPS while playing six positions, including joining Andrew Velazquez as Iglesias’ primary backups at shortstop. The Orioles have already outrighted Velazquez, who elected free agency. Still, other shortstop alternatives exist in Ramón Urías and Richie Martin, neither of whom has enough service time to be eligible for arbitration. In Valaika’s favor: The other two arbitration-eligible infielders, Sánchez and Alberto, are in their third and second years of eligibility, respectively. Valaika, in his first year, might be cheaper to keep around.