LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. — The Orioles have received plenty of interest in their late-inning relievers here at the winter meetings, and a fast-spending free-agent market for bullpen pieces that has emerged this week will make pitchers such as closer Zach Britton and setup man Brad Brach — both pending free agents next year — more attractive to potential trade suitors.
But Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said the money being spent through free agency on relievers is shocking, and even though the Orioles are well positioned for 2018, he said a market that spiked so suddenly can’t be good for clubs in the long term.
Over a 24-hour span, three non-closer relievers earned lucrative free-agent deals. Former Orioles right-hander Tommy Hunter received a two-year, $18 million contract from the Philadelphia Phillies, right-hander Anthony Swarzak got a two-year, $14 million deal with the New York Mets and right-hander Juan Nicasio agreed to a two-year, $17 million pact with the Seattle Mariners.
“The market’s been robust for the relief pitchers, and I’m not talking about the closers either,” Duquette said. “I’m talking about relievers and setup relievers. I’ve seen some stunning deals recently, some absolutely stunning deals, a couple of the relief pitcher deals. Usually clubs will go out and sign the starting pitchers first, right, and the money they’re spending on the middle relievers [now] is just unbelievable.”
Brach — who had 18 saves filling in for Britton last year — is projected to make just $5.2 million next year in his final season of arbitration eligibility. Britton will make an estimated $12.2 million in 2018, which, while a large amount, is less than the average annual value that free-agent closers such as Wade Davis or Greg Holland are commanding. Reliever Mychal Givens has the greatest value because he isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2019 and is under team control for the next four years.
“We have good relievers and I think they’re signed to cost-effective contracts,” Duquette said. “Some of the contracts I’m seeing, I don’t know how they’re cost-effective. They certainly wouldn’t be cost-effective in Baltimore. I was just floored by the contracts I saw this morning.”
The surging market would place more trade value on the Orioles’ late-inning arms, but Duquette expressed concern that it could price out clubs in the future if it continues, especially combined with a starting pitching free-agent market that often involves overpaying, which the Orioles don’t often delve into.
“The short-term commitments for less money are certainly more attractive than the long-term commitments for a lot of money,” Duquette said. “So from that sense, it’s a plus for the Orioles, but long term, that can’t be a plus when the market jumps that quickly and swiftly in that area of the market. That can’t be a good thing long term.”
Rule 5 matters: With just 34 players on their roster — the fewest of any team — the Orioles have plenty of room to make multiple picks in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft, but carrying such selections on a major league roster will be difficult because the team still has to carry outfielder Anthony Santander, one of last year’s picks, for the first six weeks of the season for him to fulfill his Rule 5 requirements.
“That would be tough, but we’ll have to see,” Duquette said. “I think we’ve got some spots if we decide to go in that direction. It would be tough given we already have one.”
Because Santander will take up one bench spot — and manager Buck Showalter suggested earlier this week a desire to carry 13 pitchers — it would leave just two position spots available for a catcher and utility player.
So if the Orioles make a pick in the Rule 5 draft, they would likely select a left-handed pitcher, preferably a power arm, to stash in their bullpen.
“We already have Santander on the roster, so I think that reduces our overall flexibility, but that’s something we’ve been working on all week and see if there’s a fit for us,” Duquette said. “We’ve looked at a lot of pitchers for the Rule 5 given that we already have Santander on the roster. We’re going to see if there’s a fit with the pitchers we’ve looked at.”
Around the horn: Longtime Orioles scout Bruce Kison, who has been in the organization since 1999, will retire at the end of this calendar year. “He’s always [been] a good presence in spring training and thoughtful observer of talent for the club,” said Duquette, who said two baseball operations department openings will be filled, but not necessarily in scouting. … Duquette said the club was already intent on looking for utility help before infielder Steve Wilkerson’s 50-game suspension for illegal amphetamine use was announced Tuesday. “We’ve been looking for major league utility player,” Duquette said. “He’d certainly be a candidate for us. … He wouldn’t be an option for our ballclub to start the year. But that’s always been on our shopping list.” … The team has yet to make a final decision on a successor for longtime head athletic trainer Richie Bancells, who has retired.