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Which nontendered free agents fit Orioles GM Mike Elias’ wish list?

Cyber Monday came and went, but because it also marked the day dozens of arbitration-eligible players weren’t tendered a 2020 contract, Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias now has more options available to complete his holiday wish list at a discount.

The Orioles were one of seven teams who did not make a nontender move, though they traded infielder Jonathan Villar to the Miami Marlins for pitching prospect Easton Lucas in a move with an eye toward the future rather than competing in 2020. They made another Wednesday, trading right-hander Dylan Bundy — who they tendered Monday — to the Los Angeles Angels for four pitching prospects. Of the players the other 23 teams decided to send into free agency, several fit the needs Baltimore has based on what Elias laid out during a conference call with reporters after trading Villar.

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“I would say that middle infield, starting pitching depth and possibly a fourth catcher would be at the top of our menu right now,” Elias said.

Middle infield

The two players who manned shortstop for the Orioles in every inning of the 2019 season might not be on 2020’s Opening Day roster. Villar was traded, and Richie Martin, having shed his Rule 5 draft status, could begin the year in the minors.

Among 40-man roster members, Hanser Alberto, Stevie Wilkerson and waiver claim Pat Valaika have experience playing shortstop in the majors, though not as a primary position. Any option likely won’t provide the impact of Villar, who led Orioles position players in wins above replacement.

“Especially with having lost Jonathan, I think that we’re going to look for opportunities to bring in some people to compete for reps at shortstop and second base, and middle infield in general … to add, especially on the defensive ball, some security, given that we’re able to do it in a cost-effective way and makes sense for us,” Elias said.

José Peraza: Among those with at least 200 innings at shortstop in 2019, Peraza ranked fifth in Ultimate Zone Ratings per 150 games, per FanGraphs. He won’t turn 26 until late April and has three years of remaining control, something Elias and the Orioles are seeking in the early stages of their rebuild. Offensively, Peraza was tied for the third-lowest weighted runs created mark in the majors among players with at least 400 plate appearances, but he also offers versatility as someone who can play both middle infield spots and even center field in a pinch. MLB Trade Rumors projected him to make $3.6 million in arbitration with the Cincinnati Reds.

Yolmer Sánchez: There’s not much shortstop in his background, but Sánchez was the American League’s best defensive second baseman in 2019, earning a Gold Glove Award for the Chicago White Sox. Like Peraza, Sánchez’s bat leaves plenty to be desired, though he would’ve ranked second among Orioles with at least 200 plate appearances in walk-to-strikeout rate. The 27-year-old was projected to make $6.2 million in his second year of arbitration.

JT Riddle: Think of him as a potential second piece in the Villar trade. The Marlins nontendered Riddle in the wake of acquiring Villar, pushing their 2017-18 starting shortstop into free agency. He graded out as a solid defender in those two seasons, though Miami mostly used him in center field in 2019, with defensive metrics not being kind at that spot. As a Super 2 qualifier, Riddle, 28, would come with four years of team control, and that plus the defensive ability Elias is looking for might make it enough of a fit to overcome his lowly offensive production.

Starting pitching

The Orioles’ pursuit of starting pitching is less tied to adding top-end talent to handle major-league innings than it is to making sure a prospect group that includes Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther and others doesn’t need to cover those frames until the club believes they’re ready to do so.

Wednesday’s trade of Bundy only adds to this area of need.

“[We’re] going to look for guys to compete for the back-end spots in the rotation,” Elias said. “Whether any of that comes on major-league contracts or minor league contracts is yet to be seen.”

Kevin Gausman: This is a reunion that could make sense for both sides. Gausman, Baltimore’s 2012 first-round pick, struggled mightily in the Atlanta Braves’ rotation in 2019, eventually moving to the bullpen after the Reds claimed him on waivers. A return to Baltimore would allow him to start, and his 3.70 ERA at Camden Yards trails only Hall of Famer Mike Mussina for the lowest in the ballpark’s history, with a minimum of 35 starts. A one-year deal for less than his $10.6 million arbitration projection would also provide Elias that opportunity to trade Gausman midseason should he bounce back.

Taijuan Walker: Once considered the top pitching prospect in baseball, Walker missed most of the past two years recovering from Tommy John surgery and battling a shoulder issue during his rehab process. He returned to pitch an inning in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ season finale, touching 94 mph. Walker is 27, but 2020 is his final arbitration-eligible season, with a projected salary of $5.03 million. A season with the Orioles would give him the chance to start and potentially re-establish him.

Miguel Diaz: Unlike the prior two options, Diaz represents much more of a flier. The former Rule 5 draft pick is only 25, and all but three of his major league appearances for the San Diego Padres came in relief, while his 2019 season was marred by a pair of knee injuries. He’s been used as a starter on occasion in the minors with both the Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, but should he end up a reliever, a fastball that tops out at 97 mph could play. Diaz wasn’t even arbitration-eligible when the Padres decided to nontender him, so he could be a fit on a minor league contract.

Catcher

When it comes to long-term outlook, this position is perhaps the Orioles’ most secure. 2019 first overall draft pick Adley Rutschman is Baltimore’s face and catcher of the future, but he won’t arrive at Camden Yards in 2020.

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Instead, Elias is out for a fourth catcher to offer depth behind Pedro Severino, Chance Sisco and Austin Wynns, likely on a minor league deal.

Caleb Joseph: This is another reunion, one with a player the Orioles nontendered themselves after the 2018 campaign. Joseph joined Arizona, then spent most of the year shuttling up and down between the majors and Triple-A Reno. If Elias’ desire in a fourth catcher is a veteran to manage Norfolk’s staff, the 33-year-old Joseph, who FanGraphs has had as a productive defender every season of his career, could make sense.

John Ryan Murphy: Murphy, 28, started the season with Joseph in Arizona, then got designated for assignment and eventually traded to the Braves. He played only one game in Atlanta, basically serving as catching insurance in Triple-A. Sounds like what Elias is looking for.

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Kevin Plawecki: Plawecki was once viewed as one of baseball’s top catching prospects while in the New York Mets’ system, but he has never played more than 80 games in his five major-league seasons and only once hit above .222. As the Cleveland Indians’ backup catcher in 2019, he was measured as a positive pitch-framer and defender. He’ll be 29 on Opening Day.

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