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5 questions facing the Orioles as the offseason officially begins

With the Atlanta Braves securing the 2021 World Series title earlier this week, the offseason has officially begun, meaning the next stage of the Orioles’ rebuild is underway.

This offseason in particular could reverberate throughout the sport, with the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the MLB Players Association set to expire Dec. 1. The impacts of that are among the questions the Orioles will face this offseason, effectively their fourth under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, who is working to build an “elite talent pipeline” along the lines of the one he helped create for the Houston Astros club that Atlanta beat in the World Series.

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Decisions made this offseason could play a role in making that a reality.

How does the new CBA impact how they handle Adley Rutschman?

Under the current CBA, there’s no incentive for teams to have their top prospects open the season in the majors; delaying their debuts affords the organization another year of control, with the opportunity to delay when they’ll begin receiving raises through salary arbitration, as well.

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Although the baseball reasons to have Rutschman return to Triple-A in 2022 were reduced by the former No. 1 overall pick’s successful stint there to end 2021, the implications of the current CBA and the Orioles’ contention status suggest the game’s top prospect will be back in Norfolk for at least part of next season.

But a CBA change that prompts the team to have Rutschman on the Opening Day roster would be welcome for him and the Orioles’ roster construction. With incumbent starter Pedro Severino clearing outright waivers Wednesday, the only catcher on Baltimore’s 40-man roster is Nick Ciuffo, who appeared in two late-season games after spending much of the year on the Orioles’ taxi squad. Minus the CBA limitations, having Rutschman from the outset can be seen as nothing but beneficial.

What does arbitration hold for rebuild fixtures?

Before Severino’s exit, he joined Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander as the three players who have appeared in the most games for Baltimore during the past three seasons, with all of them up for arbitration. Instead, he joined infielder Pat Valaika in being removed from the Orioles’ 40-man roster before the process even fully began.

Of the now six arbitration-eligible Orioles, only ace starter John Means seems assured of finishing the arbitration process in Baltimore. Paul Fry and Tanner Scott, their two pitchers with the most outings during the rebuild, formed a dynamic left-handed relief duo before combusting late. Jorge López, who trails only Means and Bundy in innings pitched as an Oriole since 2019, largely struggled as a starter before an ankle injury cut short his relief audition.

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Under Elias, Baltimore has typically used the nontender deadline to cut or trade significant players who were also due significant raises. The latter is particularly true of Mancini, whose play, personality and courageous cancer battle have permanently endeared him to the fanbase. Due to hit free agency after 2022, Mancini is projected to see his salary rise from under $5 million to nearly $8 million. It’s difficult to imagine the Orioles simply letting him go, but it’s also questionable whether another organization would value him as highly as Baltimore to make a trade worthwhile.

Which prospects receive Rule 5 protection?

The Orioles have already started trimming from the fringes of their 40-man roster, which reached 30 Wednesday with veteran pitchers Matt Harvey and Fernando Abad entering free agency, relievers Conner Greene and Marcos Diplán joining Severino in being outrighted, and the Pittsburgh Pirates claiming reliever Eric Hanhold on waivers.

Some of those spaces are reserved for players who must come off the 60-day injured list, but several of the others will surely soon belong to some of the organization’s top prospects, specifically those who would otherwise be available to other teams in the Rule 5 draft. Starting pitching prospects DL Hall (the team’s No. 3 prospect per Baseball America), Kyle Bradish (No. 9) and Kevin Smith all figure to be protected, as does infielder Terrin Vavra. Other potential candidates who are first-time eligible include outfielder Robert Neustrom; infielders Adam Hall, Patrick Dorrian and Cadyn Grenier; and right-hander Blaine Knight.

Who are the solutions in the infield?

Outside of Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle at first base, there wasn’t much consistency on the Orioles’ infield in 2021. Yet, they ended the year with potentially intriguing pieces for 2022 in Ramón Urías, Jorge Mateo and Kelvin Gutiérrez.

But whether they’ll handle second base, shortstop and third base duties to open the year remains to be seen. Elias has signed a free-agent shortstop on a short-term deal the past two offseasons as the Orioles await the arrival of what’s become an impressive crop of young infield prospects. And even though some of the game’s best shortstops will be on the market this winter, Elias has already said the Orioles likely won’t be making any of the offseason’s biggest moves.

Still, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Baltimore add another José Iglesias or Freddy Galvis type — or those exact players — at some point this winter.

Will they sign a player to a multi-year deal?

Related to a couple of the above, the Orioles have yet to sign anyone to a contract guaranteed to cover multiple seasons during Elias’ tenure. The closest they’ve come was Iglesias’ deal, which was for one year with an option for another; the option was picked up, but Iglesias was traded to the Los Angeles Angels before he could play a game for Baltimore on that portion of the contract.

Still, as the Orioles have rebuilt all aspects of their organization, they have yet to make a long-term commitment on the major league roster. Perhaps Elias’ end-of-the-season comments were a smokescreen, and he fully intends for the Orioles to be involved at the top of the shortstop market. Maybe they’ll add some stability to their pitching staff with something other than minor league free agents; even the Astros, amid their rebuild, signed former Oriole Scott Feldman to a three-year deal. There’s always the chance Baltimore signs Mancini to an extension, rewarding a player who has been adamant throughout the rebuild that he wants to see it through.

Of course, the Orioles might just treat this offseason as other recent ones, adding supplemental pieces here and there that do little to narrow the time between now and the time this rebuild ends.

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