Orioles reporters Eduardo Encina and Peter Schmuck talk about Tillman and newly signed Colby Rasmus. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
The Orioles addressed their need for a left-handed-hitting outfielder Wednesday, signing veteran Colby Rasmus to a one-year, minor league deal.
The addition of the 31-year-old Rasmus was the Orioles’ fourth acquisition over a seven-day span, more activity than the team had made all offseason beforehand. But with spring training games beginning Friday, the Orioles were opportunistic in signing players to value contracts.
Last week, the club surveyed left-handed-hitting outfielders who could be signed to low-risk minor league deals. Rasmus, who spent last season with the Tampa Bay Rays, emerged from that pack as the leading candidate to pursue, mainly because — if healthy — he has the potential to help the outfield defense, an offseason priority for the club.
Rasmus, who was at the Orioles’ spring training complex Wednesday morning receiving a physical exam before the deal became official, will compete for a platoon spot against right-handed pitching — he had a .915 OPS against right-handers last season — and will likely get most of his playing time in right field.
The club had interest in Rasmus throughout the offseason, but there was question as to whether he wanted to play in 2018 after spending the second half of last season on the restricted list because he wanted to “step away from baseball.”
But manager Buck Showalter has a history with him, flying out to Rasmus’ home of Phenix City, Ala., to visit him when he was a free agent before the 2015 season.
Rasmus has dealt with his share of injuries over his career, especially last season. Before going on the restricted list July 13, Rasmus landed on the disabled list June 23 with left hip tendinitis. He also opened last season on the DL while recovering from hip surgery. Still, Rasmus was productive last season when he was healthy, hitting nine homers and posting an .896 OPS in 37 games with the Rays.
Before last season, Rasmus averaged 20 homers a year from 2012 to 2016 while playing for the Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros. However, the addition of Rasmus also potentially adds another high-strikeout hitter to the Orioles batting order.
Last season, the Orioles outfield struggled defensively, finishing in the bottom third in the majors in three defensive metrics that measure range. The unit ranked 22nd out of the 30 major league clubs in plus-minus runs saved, a statistic that evaluates a defender’s ability to convert a batted ball into an out, at minus-13. The Orioles outfield ranked 23rd in defensive runs saved at minus-15, and ranked 24th with an .898 revised zone rating, which is the percentage of balls determined to be in a fielder’s zone that are converted into outs.
“It’s an area we want to get better at and get back to,” Showalter said. “I think Trey [Mancini], the work he did last year made us feel good about that, and it’s only going to get better. But that was a challenge for us. We want to get better there and we also want to have better depth to give Adam [Jones] some time [off]. It’s something that was really a challenge for us. I don’t want guys playing because we don’t have somebody else.”
Rasmus can play all three outfield positions and has put up solid defensive numbers in the his career. He came up as a center fielder, but has made a successful transition to the corner spot, spending most of his time in left.
In 31 games (26 starts) last season, Rasmus had four defense runs saved. In 2016, he had 20 defensive runs saved in 119 games.
The Orioles needed additional left-handed hitters this offseason to complement a batting order with just one lefty starter in first baseman Chris Davis, and that left-handed hitter needed to be able to play the outfield, especially with Mark Trumbo expected to clog the designated hitter spot.
Now, the Orioles’ 63-player spring training camp roster is much different from the way it was when pitchers and catchers reported Feb. 13. Since then, the team acquired Rasmus, right-hander Andrew Cashner, left-handed-hitting outfielder Alex Presley and former Orioles ace Chris Tillman.
Earlier in the day, Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said that with Tillman officially signed, the team’s top priority turned to acquiring a left-handed hitter. To make room for Tillman, the Orioles designated left-handed-hitting outfielder Jaycob Brugman for assignment, suggesting the club was on the verge of acquiring a left-handed outfielder.
“Yes, if we can add a left-handed bat to take a look at, that would be helpful,” Duquette said.
But Duquette added that he also wants to gauge the trajectory of the Orioles’ crop of young outfielders — such as top prospect Austin Hays, Rule 5 draft carryover Anthony Santander, former first-round pick DJ Stewart and intriguing prospect Cedric Mullins.
“I’d like to see what these young kids can do,” Duquette said. “DJ Stewart is a 20-20 guy. There aren’t too many 20-home runs and 20-stolen base guys knocking on the door to the big leagues, so we can take a look at him. Mullins has some really exciting speed. That would be additive to our ballclub. He’s got the speed to patrol center field. He’s a true center fielder. Those guys I’m sure could use some more experience, but they’re both going to be in the organization and we can take a look at them.”