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Five things we learned about the Orioles at the 2019 winter meetings

Four days in San Diego this week for baseball’s winter meetings did plenty to heat up the free-agent market, with top stars Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon each signing massive contracts to jump-start the December signing period.

All that warmth might not make it down to the Orioles’ rung of the market, but as executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and his team have made clear at every turn, that’s not really what the Orioles are about right now.

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They came away from the meetings with a few more pitchers, a full 40-man roster and a better sense of the trade market for their players and the free-agent market for their targets.

But these meetings serve equally as a window into an organization’s priorities and a four-day snapshot of what that looks like. Daily sessions with Elias and time with manager Brandon Hyde, amidst the free-agent frenzy, gave a clear picture of not only where the Orioles are, but why they’re there and where they hope to be.

Here are five things we learned at baseball’s winter meetings about the Orioles’ plans, their players and their prospects.

Pitching is going to be the priority this winter…

The Orioles began the winter meetings by claiming Marcos Diplán, a 23-year-old reliever, off waivers from the Detroit Tigers and taking two pitchers — Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker — in the Rule 5 draft.

If last offseason was about trying to paper over the large talent gaps in the high minors on the middle infield, it seems like the rest of this offseason is going to be all about adding pitching depth.

It’s odd. Right-handed pitching depth is usually something teams have in abundance, but in the high minors, the Orioles have a lot of left-handed starters on their prospect lists. Michael Baumann is probably on a different tier talent-wise, but has spent a half-season in Double-A.

The only real peer in terms of talent level, handedness, and relative prospect status to any of these Rule 5 picks is Dean Kremer, and he was a trade acquisition in 2018. Rucker might end up as a swingman, but is basically being judged against the same pool.

All that goes to say is that while there’s waves of pitching depth coming in the low minors and starting to get to Double-A in 2020, with the likes of DL Hall and a separate wave coming from Bowie already, the Orioles are going to need to get creative in adding as many major league caliber arms as they can. The Rule 5 picks and this week’s waiver claim — plus past ones from this offseason, like Cole Sulser — are the start of that what should be a lengthy process.

…but nothing that comes in will be on a significant salary.

Just don’t expect any of those players or pitchers to cost very much money above the major league minimum if we’re talking free-agent signings. Elias spent three days outlining his strategy for free agents, and the features all seem to lead down a particular path or two.

Elias said they’re “not even close” to having enough pitching depth, though that was before the Rule 5 selections. Those additions would likely be in the form of starting pitching, he said, with the intention that any improvements to the rotation will make life easier on the bullpen.

While noting that there was a sense on the free-agent market that someone looking to sign for one year and pitch in a big league rotation will have an opportunity with the Orioles, Elias also said that many of the remaining rotation candidates to add could be non-roster invitees on minor league deals, “so even though they’re competing in spring training, they may not be a part of the organization at the end of spring training."

The infield is a priority as well, and while the team’s reported interest in former Cincinnati Reds infielder José Peraza didn’t stop him from signing with the Red Sox for $3 million, Elias said that they could offer a major league deal if it means getting the player they want.

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It’s hard to imagine at this point that the Orioles will add significant salary, if at all. Since Elias cited budget as to why the San Francisco Giants were able to acquire a first-round pick from last year’s draft by taking on an expensive veteran salary, it’s fair to assume that’s part of the consideration for the Orioles.

And if there’s not an organizational appetite to add present-day payroll — even if it means building toward their goal of adding young talent to the organization that fits their competitive timeline — it’s hard to imagine that they’ll do it just to make the 2020 product better.

The Orioles could kind of hit last year, and that should continue even without Jonathan Villar.

That said, those seeking improvement are liable to see it from the team already constructed.

Brandon Hyde noted the team’s offensive progress, highlighting shortstop Richie Martin as someone who got better along the way, while the same can be said for Anthony Santander and Rio Ruiz. Trey Mancini and Hanser Alberto each had career years.

Add in the excitement around the return of Austin Hays to the major league fold and some potential promise from Chance Sisco’s offseason work on his swing and his body with outside coaches and trainers, and the Orioles could grow into a little bit of an offensive threat this year, even without Villar.

Are they going to be giving the club’s mid-decade contenders a run for their money in terms of prodigious power? Hardly. But any kind of sustained improvement for their regulars would be a credit to both the players and the coaching staff Hyde assembled.

Part of the rub with the pitching last year was a perceived lack of progress for a lot of struggling players, with the exception of John Means and Dylan Bundy, to name a few. That wasn’t the case with the hitters, and the Orioles could easily generate some buzz if that’s the case again.

There’s some urgency to the Chris Davis situation.

All that progress ignores the Davis-sized elephant in the room, though Elias’ comments on the plan the team has Davis on, with agent Scott Boras’ input, spoke to a new level of urgency on the situation.

“There was still some hope last year that 2018 was a little bit of an aberration and that new people, new environment might have some affect,” Elias said. “And here we are again, again in 2019. The message is the same, that we all want to figure out a way for him to get better. But we want to try some different specific things, or some tweaks specifically, to aspects of his program.”

When asked about what the things he’d discussed with Elias were during the season, Davis declined to get into specifics, but said they were mainly routine-based to find some consistency. He has stretches in which he hits, but they end and don’t start back up again for even longer stretches.

With three years left on the seven-year, $161 million contract signed ahead of the 2016 season, the amount of money owed to Davis drops the nearer it gets to the end. Elias has been steadfast that Davis will be with the team come spring training, and his contract isn’t something that the organization takes lightly.

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The days of hoping for the different results after more of the same, however, appear over. Davis and the Orioles could both benefit from that.

There’s been a lot of progress from an organization-building standpoint in the past year.

At this time last year, the Orioles were well-represented by holdover staff from the Dan Duquette/Buck Showalter era who were helping the transition with Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal as they maneuvered their first winter meetings just weeks after being hired.

A year later, seeing the new additions and newly elevated front office members in San Diego gave an impression of how different things are now. Koby Perez, hired as senior director of international scouting in January, was there with some of his team and was a big part of the Rule 5 draft preparations while working with new director of pro scouting Mike Snyder and his staff.

Eve Rosenbaum, the director of baseball innovation hired from the Astros last month, came up in conversations all week as a great addition. Director of player development Matt Blood, hired in September from the Texas Rangers, was constantly holding court.

And they weren’t the only ones. It just gave the impression of a vibrant organization, and while the Orioles have been staffed up and present at winter meetings before all the turnover of the past 14 months, that wasn’t exactly a word that applied. It is now.

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