The end of the World Series either Tuesday or Wednesday will bring with it the official start of the Orioles' second full offseason under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias' front office regime.
Unlike the previous offseason, this one will be greatly influenced by the looming specter of the coronavirus pandemic, in terms of both its impact on this almost-completed season and the uncertainty it casts on the 2021 campaign. Still, as Elias looks to build the Orioles into a consistent competitor in the American League East, the next few months, as any offseason, will feature vital decisions.
Here’s a look at five questions facing the Orioles as the 2020 season nears its finale:
Who survives the end-of-the-season roster churn?
The World Series' conclusion will prompt teams to add players who were on the 60-day injured list or who had opted out of the 2020 season back onto their 40-man rosters. In the Orioles' case, their 40-man roster is at 36, leaving room to spare once Trey Mancini, Richie Martin and Kohl Stewart rejoin; left-hander Wade LeBlanc, who also ended the season on the IL, joins catcher Bryan Holaday as the Orioles' guaranteed major league free agents.
But other teams might not have as much flexibility, potentially sending a collection of players who might interest the Orioles onto the waiver wire, and a couple of those additions could cost a current Oriole his 40-man spot. It would not be unlike Elias to bite: 10 members of Baltimore’s current 40-man roster are products of waivers claims he’s made in his less than two years as GM.
Which prospects earn Rule 5 draft protection?
The loss of minor league baseball in 2020 makes these decisions more difficult, as the Orioles are forced to rely on what they’ve seen at their alternate training site and instructional league to decide which of the prospects to add to the 40-man roster among those who would otherwise be eligible to be chosen by other teams in the Rule 5 draft.
Outfielder Yusniel Díaz, the former top prospect acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018′s Manny Machado trade, and right-hander Michael Baumann, who split the organization’s 2019 Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award with top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez, are seemingly locks. High-minors pitchers Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Isaac Mattson should also receive strong consideration, as will infielders Rylan Bannon and Mason McCoy.
Squeezing all seven onto the 40-man is unlikely, especially when only Bannon and Mattson have played at Triple-A. The Orioles might have already telegraphed some decisions: Wells and McCoy weren’t included on either the alternate site or instructional league rosters.
Does José Iglesias' option get picked up?
This is perhaps the most pressing question for the major league edition of the 2021 Orioles. Last offseason, the Orioles signed Iglesias to a one-year deal with an option for 2021 worth $3.5 million and a buyout of $500,000 to provide a veteran, defensive presence in their infield. Instead, a quadriceps injury limited Igelsias' ability to play shortstop at the frequency the Orioles hoped, but he overcame it by being one of their top offensive producers, leading Baltimore in batting average, on-base percentage, doubles, OPS and strikeout percentage.
In baseball terms, $3.5 million seems cheap if Iglesias can repeat that production, but the deal was agreed upon long before the pandemic muddied the financial outlook of several clubs. Still, electing to pay half a million dollars to let one of their top players go elsewhere would be worthy of criticism. The lack of a clear replacement, with Martin returning from injury, Andrew Velazquez posting a .480 OPS and Pat Valaika struggling defensively at short, should factor into this choice.
Do all arbitration-eligible players make the cut?
Excluding Jonathan Villar, who was traded to Miami Marlins before any decision was finalized, the Orioles tendered contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players last offseason.
But again, that was before the pandemic created an offseason dynamic that will be, as Elias has put it, “very uncertain.” Three relievers who were among the Orioles' crop of arbitration-eligible players last year were dealt during the season in Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro, leaving Mancini and Hanser Alberto as the only Orioles who are in at least their second year of eligibility. The first-timers joining them are reliever Shawn Armstrong, outfielder Anthony Santander, catcher Pedro Severino, and infielders Renato Núñez and Pat Valaika.
In a season that an oblique injury further shortened, Santander was voted Most Valuable Oriole and a Gold Glove finalist. Severino was among baseball’s most productive catchers before his OPS dropped more than 200 points in the season’s final two weeks. Armstrong had a 1.80 ERA in 14 outings, but the Orioles could decide they are better off paying the league minimum for middle-relief innings. Likewise, Núñez’s 50 home runs are the most by an Oriole since his team debut in July 2018, but Baltimore’s first base/designated hitter glut featuring Mancini, Ryan Mountcastle and Chris Davis — who Elias has insisted isn’t going anywhere — could prompt another difficult decision.
Will they let the rookie rotation arms ride?
Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer ended 2020 in the Orioles' rotation, while Bruce Zimmermann got a pair of lengthy auditions as well. All three figure to contend for starts in 2021.
2019 All-Star John Means appears to be the only lock for such a role. The Orioles could try to trade veteran right-hander Alex Cobb, though the sport’s financial uncertainty could make moving the final year of his deal difficult. Jorge López had mixed results after coming over as a waiver claim from Kansas City. Stewart, a Type 1 diabetic, sat out the season because of the coronavirus.
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That leaves plenty of opportunity for Akin, Kremer and Zimmermann, who could all be working with a familiar adviser should the Orioles choose to move Chris Holt from director of pitching to major league pitching coach. This is a question that might not be answered until spring training, but last year, the Orioles signed LeBlanc, Stewart and Tommy Milone in moves that signaled the young trio would likely get more minor league seasoning. If no similar moves are made this offseason, Orioles fans can hope that if they’re able to make an early-season return to Camden Yards, a look at the future on the mound would come with it.