The Orioles will enter the 2020 season a favorite to lock up the top draft pick in 2021, which would mark their third straight year with a top-two selection. But unlike Baltimore, most of the other teams that will pick earliest in June are making efforts to avoid similar territory the next year.
While the Orioles have in all likelihood made themselves worse by trading infielder Jonathan Villar and right-hander Dylan Bundy, each of the other teams with a top-five selection in the 2020 draft has made some addition.
The Detroit Tigers, the lone team to finish with a worse record than Baltimore’s 54-108 mark in 2019, added a pair of veteran free agents Saturday, signing first baseman C.J. Cron and former Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop to one-year contracts. Although neither deal likely jumps Detroit into contention, they add a pair of veterans to the clubhouse and potentially offer the front office two midseason trade chips.
The Miami Marlins were the beneficiary of the Orioles’ decision to avoid paying Villar’s projected eight-figure salary in his final year of arbitration. Minutes before the tender deadline, the Orioles traded Villar, who led the team’s position players in both Baseball Reference’s and FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement, to Miami for left-handed pitching prospect Easton Lucas, a member of the Marlins’ 2019 draft class. The same day, the Marlins claimed first baseman Jesús Aguilar, who hit 35 home runs in 2018 but struggled last year, off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays. Aguilar has three years of control remaining, but Villar is a pending free agent and could be traded again. From the Orioles’ perspective, the hope is that the return is less than what Miami gave up to get him.
The Kansas City Royals picked second behind the Orioles in the 2019 draft and lost 100 games again. But they’ve reportedly signed 27-year-old third baseman Maikel Franco, trying to get the best out of a bat that averaged 22 home runs the past four seasons while posting a sub-.300 on-base percentage.
The Toronto Blue Jays have made the largest move, reportedly signing left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu to a four-year deal after already bolstering their rotation with right-hander Tanner Roark. The moves single a turn toward competitiveness in the near future for Toronto, which already has a strong core of young position players that includes Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. An improved Blue Jays team adds another challenging force for the Orioles, who already must face the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Rays in the American League East.
The San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels, all of whom hold top 12 picks in the 2020 draft, have made significant additions via trades or free agency. The Orioles are not at the stage of their rebuild in which such moves get made, with the draft classes they’ll pile on top of the one first overall pick Adley Rutschman helmed in 2019 likely carrying more significance for their future than much else. Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has said repeatedly that it’s unlikely the team makes modest investments in free agents for marginal win increases, while saying this process “was the only path” for Baltimore to become a perennial contender in the years to come.
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Thus, they are among a group that includes the Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates and Colorado Rockies that has done little to improve upon teams that, at best, finished 20 games below .500 in 2019. Baltimore, one of four teams yet to sign a free agent to a fully guaranteed major league deal this offseason, is seeking additions to its rotation and middle infield, and it’s possible those acquisitions come in the form of major league free agents. But for now, the Orioles are watching as the teams that will draft around them in June actually try to get better.