With the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union set to expire later this week, the two sides agreed to move up teams’ deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players.
That means the Orioles will have until 8 p.m. Tuesday to decide whether to continue negotiating with several of the fixtures of the first three seasons of their rebuild or to make them free agents. Baltimore choosing the former does not guarantee the player will return in 2022; the Orioles traded right-hander Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels days after tendering him a contract at the 2019 deadline, before which they dealt infielder Jonathan Villar to the Miami Marlins rather than make a tender decision.
The organization entered the offseason with eight arbitration-eligible players and has already whittled that list to six by outrighting infielder Pat Valaika and catcher Pedro Severino. For most of the remaining group, there are cases for and against the Orioles tendering them a contract.
Case for: Means, 28, is one of only 16 pitchers who over the past three seasons has worked at least 300 innings with an ERA under 4.00 and WHIP beneath 1.10. Only two others, Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urías of the Los Angeles Dodgers, are left-handed. Means finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2019, was an All-Star that season and might have been one this year if not for a shoulder injury that temporarily derailed a campaign that opened with a 2.05 ERA over his first 11 starts, one of which was Baltimore’s first complete-game no-hitter since 1969. During the rebuild, Means has been the Orioles’ lone consistently reliable pitcher.
Case against: One could point to that shoulder injury, which also cost Means some time in 2019, or his propensity to allow home runs, but non-tendering Means would be the most jarring and baffling move the Orioles have made under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, especially given their lack of clear starters otherwise. Baltimore is reportedly listening to trade offers for Means and All-Star center fielder Cedric Mullins and did the same around last season’s trade deadline, with Elias saying he was “pretty confident that we weren’t going to get very serious in talks” involving them. After he’s tendered, Means’ name might continue to appear alongside Mullins’ in trade rumors, likely solely because Elias is checking to see whether any team is willing to offer the type of massive package it would take to move either.
Case for: The longest-tenured Oriole has endeared himself to the fanbase with his play and his story. Each step of his first season back from stage 3 colon cancer was an inspirational one, and although he started and ended slowly, Mancini spent a good chunk of the year performing as the version of himself that was nearly an All-Star in 2019. In a half-season’s worth of games from mid-April to late July, Mancini hit .288 and slugged .509 with 16 home runs and 50 RBIs, showing the impact he remains capable of making.
Case against: Mancini, 29, is the only member of this list entering his final year of arbitration before free agency, while all others have three more years of team control. Of his final 33 starts, 26 came at designated hitter, with rookie home run leader Ryan Mountcastle drawing the majority of the starts at first base. With top prospect Adley Rutschman en route to the majors and unlikely to catch every day, the Orioles will want to keep his bat in the lineup with occasional starts at first and DH, meaning either Mancini or Mountcastle would need to be on the bench. It could be a good problem to have, but the Orioles could decide the public relations hit that would come with cutting Mancini would be worth the dollars saved and roster flexibility added.
Case for: Across 130 games between 2019 and 2020, Santander hit 31 home runs with a .505 slugging percentage, providing a switch-hitting bat in the middle of Baltimore’s order. He was voted Most Valuable Oriole in 2020 despite an oblique injury prematurely ending his season after 37 games, posting an .890 OPS and finishing as an AL Gold Glove finalist in right field. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said that stint is more reflective of the player Santander, 27, is than the struggles he endured in 2021.
Case against: An early-season sprained ankle lingered throughout the year as Santander spent much of 2021 limited by lower-body injuries. But in more than 1,000 plate appearances over the past three years, he’s managed a .295 on-base percentage, one of nine batters with that much playing time to reach base that infrequently. The outfield is the Orioles’ greatest area of depth, and they could elect to roll with pre-arbitration players in right field and let Santander go.
Case for: Through July 18 of this season, Fry ranked in the top five of all relievers in slugging percentage against and percentage of hard contact allowed, according to FanGraphs. That success, seemingly a continuation of his effectiveness in the shortened 2020 season, briefly made Fry the Orioles’ closer.
Case against: From that point on, though, Fry, 29, was one of baseball’s worst relievers, his 11.05 ERA the highest and .420 on-base percentage allowed third-highest of any bullpen arm with at least 20 innings. The struggles culminated in a dramatically bad August in which, over his final 10 outings, Fry’s combined total of walks and home runs allowed (18) surpassed his number of outs recorded (17), resulting in a demotion to Triple-A where his control problems continued.
Case for: Like Fry, Scott was one of baseball’s best left-handed relievers throughout 2020 and the first half of 2021. After a 2020 season in which he surrendered only three earned runs over 20 ⅔ innings, Scott, 27, entered the 2021 All-Star break with a 2.78 ERA over a team-high 40 appearances. Scott seemed to be finally living up to the potential his high-velocity fastball and dynamic slider suggested he was capable of.
Case against: In late July, a left knee sprain put Scott on the injured list, and the same issue eventually ended his season in September. Between, he posted a 9.82 ERA and allowed more than two baserunners per inning. After striking out nearly a third of the batters he faced in the first half, that figure dwindled to about 21% after the break. With the Orioles recently claiming left-hander Cionel Pérez from the Cincinnati Reds to fill out their 40-man roster, they have a potential replacement should they elect to non-tender Scott or Fry.
Case for: Even during his stint in the Orioles’ rotation, López, 28, showed the capability to be a standout multi-inning reliever. Through a dozen starts, he had a 2.93 ERA in the first four innings, then a 16.20 mark afterward. The trend continued throughout his time as a starter, prompting a move to the bullpen where he quickly became a late-inning reliever. In that short-lived experiment, he had a 2.16 ERA.
Case against: Despite his struggles as a starter, López’s time in that role will likely boost the salary he’ll receive in the arbitration process, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting him to receive $1.5 million, compared to $1.1 million for Fry and $1 million for Scott. Although López was effective as a reliever, he spent only about two weeks in the bullpen before a season-ending right ankle sprain, and it’s likely the role Baltimore would bring him back in. His struggles for most of 2021, paired with the injury, could prove enough for the Orioles to move on, though another team would surely then give López the chance to latch onto a spot in its bullpen.