With free agency beginning at 5 p.m. Monday and one major issue facing the Orioles — their threadbare starting rotation — the club could take several different avenues to fill their needs.
When the Orioles had fewer gaps to fill in their starting rotation in the past, they took a wait-and-see method for the market to play out and for the calendar to turn to January to make their major business.
But with a change in the qualifying offer system that significantly lessens the penalty for the Orioles to sign a player who rejected one, and around $40 million in salary flexibility from last year's payroll, there's a chance for the Orioles to change their approach a bit and splash early to fill out a rotation.
Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks, but the idea is that the Orioles will likely need to add three starting pitchers of some pedigree to supplement returners Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, with maybe one on a minor league deal to compete with the likes of Gabriel Ynoa and Miguel Castro for a rotation spot in spring training.
Whichever way they approach things, the quality of pitchers that come to Baltimore will reflect it.
The weekend's news that right-hander Masahiro Tanaka didn't want to risk opting out of his final three years with the New York Yankees and will stay with that burgeoning American League power significantly thins the top end of the starter pool, which now features the likes of Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta as the headliners. Both will likely be priced out of the Orioles' range and will have their pick of teams to decide from anyway, but the next tier of free agents who could be in their sights includes Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn.
Both have had Tommy John surgery and were back to full health in 2017, with Cobb projected to receive a four-year, $48 million contract and Lynn projected for four years and $56 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors' predictions. The nod in any situation where the Orioles are supremely aggressive in the starting pitching market and pounce on one of these two should go to Cobb for his experience in the American League and his ability to miss bats, as Lynn had the worst year of his career in several peripheral categories.
While there are some minor non-arm-related durability issues with Cobb, he's had nothing but success at the major league level, posting a 3.66 ERA in a career-high 167 1/3 innings in 2017 and entering free agency with a career 3.50 ERA. He'll be searching for a contract in the range of Ubaldo Jiménez's ill-fated four-year, $50 million deal, but the Orioles' issues with that contract shouldn't impact this one. Signing Cobb early for market value would be a different and more aggressive move than signing Jiménez in February because he was their only option.
Say Cobb does get $13 million per year for four years with the Orioles, giving them a long-term core of Cobb, Bundy, and Gausman in the rotation. They'd probably need to go deeper into the market for another option, and sign at least one on the inexpensive side.
If they wanted to still go with a pitcher who is young for a free agent and could develop into something more, Colorado right-hander Tyler Chatwood fits the bill. He just completed his age-27 season and while it included a stint in the bullpen, he's had sub-4.00 ERAs the last two full healthy seasons he pitched (around Tommy John surgery in 2014). Chatwood has a big fastball and keeps the ball on the ground, which the Orioles like in Camden Yards. With a projected contract of three years and $20 million, it's a long-term commitment for the Orioles, but a manageable and fair one if that's what it takes.
In order to fill their desire for a left-handed pitcher, someone like Derek Holland could be an inexpensive option after a down season with the Chicago White Sox.
But because in this scenario the team is going to be spending so heavily on Cobb and Chatwood, with roughly $20 million committed to the pair, this option might include a flier or two as the back-end pieces, where they hope to sneak a worthy starter in from Asia or as a minor league free agent on a low-cost deal. Someone like Anibal Sanchez or Tyson Ross could be had for cheap.
If fans see a big investment like Cobb plus some upside in Chatwood and one of their own young starters also filling out the rotation, there can be no groaning about a lack of inaction.
Live in the middle
Perhaps the most likely route is instead of the Orioles paying one pitcher at market value on a long-term contract, they could sign a handful of mid-market pitchers on shorter but fair deals to both sides. This brings up names that the Orioles are frequently linked to, as it turns out.
Andrew Cashner and his big fastball have always tantalized teams, but even if that is slipping a bit, he's still going to be a popular pitcher after working to a 3.40 ERA on a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers in 2017. He signed early in free agency last year, and if his salary demands don't go up too much, the Orioles could be among his suitors for two years at $10 million or $11 million per year.
Same goes for Jason Vargas, who may not even require a second year but fits the Orioles' tired mantra of being "left-handed and breathing." Vargas was an All-Star after a stellar first half this season but ended up with a 4.16 ERA — which the Orioles would gladly take, especially if it's on a one-year deal worth the $10 million that MLB Trade Rumors projects.
To truly fill out a rotation overhaul in which they can't be accused of going the inexpensive route but don't make too many potentially dangerous long-term investments (and achieve some fan service in the process), Doug Fister could make sense on an inexpensive one-year deal as well. He can pitch as a starter or in long relief, and considering he signed for less than $2 million last year, it'd be unreasonable to see him get much more now.
This type of plan fits the return of someone like right-hander Chris Tillman, who had a miserable 2017 after starting slow with a shoulder injury and losing his mechanics and could return on an incentive-laden deal to rebuild his value with the only team he knows. Something like a $7 million base with easily attainable incentives that can bring his salary to $10 million if he's healthy and effective would be fair to both sides.
Executing any combination of these would allow the Orioles to be flexible in other areas and still have plenty of money for those flier types on inactive-heavy deals, whether it's Tillman or someone more risky and willing to take a minor league deal. Around the same amount of money would be committed in each scenario, at least for 2018, but with vastly different results.
Wait it out
The danger, however, is that the Orioles will see some exorbitant pitching contracts early in the market to someone like Arrieta or Darvish, then bow out until prices drop. That method has led to such signings as Jiménez and Yovani Gallardo in recent years, and could yield a similar caliber of pitchers this year.
For instance, from a left-handed pitching standpoint, there are plenty of options for the Orioles to fill out that aspect of their rotation. Vargas may be the most attractive, but there's also C.C. Sabathia, Jaime Garcia and Hector Santiago, among others. While Sabathia would be a pipe dream (and could easily return to the Yankees to finish his career), the rest all have their warts and could struggle to regain their past successes in an Orioles uniform.
But if other teams see their declining peripherals and pass as well, the market will choose for the Orioles. While Garcia ended a tumultuous year that saw him traded twice with a 4.41 ERA, he also had a career-high 1.408 WHIP and walked a career-high 3.7 batters per nine innings. At age 30, he'll probably still be seeking a two-year deal, and if the Orioles are left without a dance partner on the left-handed pitching front, he could end up getting the $16 million that MLB Trade Rumors projects.
When it comes to right-handers, there are more options, but the good ones will go off the market quickly. One who the market could be skeptical of despite some recent success is Jhoulys Chacin, who pitched 180 1/3 innings for the Padres, despite walking 3.6 batters per nine in 2017, thanks to an ability to get weak contact. He could be in line for multiple years as well, and has just the type of peripherals that could make the rest of the league look away and force the Orioles to swallow hard and sign in late January or February to a two-year, $16 million deal.
This wait-and-see approach, like all the others, could fit the return of Tillman or even someone like Miguel González on a cheaper contract, with minor league free agents and maybe a pitcher from Japan or South Korea filling out the rotation. It may be the most cost-effective, but as the Orioles have seen in years past, waiting for the market to leave pitchers for you can be a dangerous game.