In a baseball offseason marked by a lack of activity around the game, the Orioles arrive at their latest checkpoint in the winter calendar with their focus exactly where it's been at each previous one.
After being outbid on some of their starting pitching targets ahead of the winter meetings, they looked to use franchise cornerstone Manny Machado to rebuild their rotation. By the holiday shutdown, they'd moved on to other priorities after the widespread interest in the three-time All-Star didn't yield a sufficient offer.
Now, with the club's three-day pitching minicamp beginning Monday and ending Wednesday — barely a month before spring training commences — the Orioles’ offseason haul hasn't made much of an impact on their list of needs.
"We've got to go out and staff our 2018 club," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "It's past the holidays, and it's a new year. Our focus is going to be on staffing our club to be competitive in 2018. ...
"We're still looking to add some pitchers here to our club, and we haven't completed our shopping list and checked off the boxes for some of the other things we'd like to add to our ballclub before we get going. We're still looking around at a couple different things we think we need to get going."
At present, the items on that shopping list will join a team that does include Machado, who is entering his final year of club control ahead of what's expected to be a historic free-agent payday.
While clubs have maintained interest in Machado past the Orioles' soft late-December deadline, and offers have come in since, those offers still haven't come close to the expectation the Orioles set of two young, major league starting pitchers. And as seen with the 11th-hour drama surrounding the possible trade of Zach Britton this past July, even offers that satisfy from a baseball standpoint require ownership’s approval, which isn’t a given.
The Orioles' list includes more than just pitching — though the rotation still has three open spots in it around Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. They want to add a left-handed hitter, whether it be as a utility man or a spare outfielder. A veteran catcher to serve as a fallback option should rookies Chance Sisco and Austin Wynns not be ready come April is also possible. And with Britton out for at least the first half of the season with an Achilles injury, a hard-throwing left-handed reliever becomes a bigger priority.
But all of those additions at this point will be joining Machado, not replacing him, as the Orioles look to rebuild a rotation that bears most of the blame for the team's disappointing 2017 season.
How well they do that will almost wholly determine how their 2018 season — possibly the last with Machado, Britton and All-Stars Adam Jones and Brad Brach — will go. The market is still stocked with starting pitchers who need homes, especially at the top tier where massive contracts await premier free agents Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta and the market should be healthy for the next tier, which includes Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb.
Any of those would be transformational pieces for the Orioles rotation, and the club should have payroll flexibility this offseason, but the sticking point could be Duquette's winter meetings declaration that four- and five-year contracts weren't in their plans this offseason.
For an organization known for thorough physicals and one that has a spotty track record of bringing in free-agent pitchers and having them succeed, the contract length limit is just another roadblock toward building a rotation that can sustain the Orioles into the franchise's next phase.
Absent that, the team's desire for a left-handed starter could bring it to the likes of Jason Vargas or Jaime García. Others, such as right-hander Andrew Cashner, are frequently linked to the club and still available. They could even dip into the pool of known quantities for someone like Chris Tillman or Miguel González, who might be available on incentive-laden contracts to rebuild their value.
Outside of Arrieta and Darvish, however, each pitcher available on the market has red flags that could indicate they’ll turn into the newest version of Ubaldo Jiménez or Yovani Gallardo — starters with their best baseball behind them— during their next contract.
Still, having such a long list of needs into January and possibly even February isn't uncommon for the Orioles. At minicamp in 2016, first baseman Chris Davis was still an unsigned free agent and the Orioles hadn't re-signed him nor added Gallardo or slugger Pedro Álvarez. Mark Trumbo was still a free agent at minicamp in 2017, with his three-year contract coming Jan. 20.
Whether the Orioles will have their offseason pep rally without a new signing to parade around is yet to be seen, but this year, they’ll have plenty of competition in the market.
"It's a question of how the market works, you know?" Duquette said. "I don't know where other clubs are in terms of their planning. Some of the clubs have been able to address their needs quicker than we have. So those clubs aren't in the market anymore, but there's still a number of clubs looking for pitching."