Beyond a few additions — and subtractions — on the waiver wire, the start to the offseason has been quiet for the Orioles. That could change next week once the Baltimore brass arrives in San Diego at the winter meetings.
This will be the first winter meetings held in person since 2019, when executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias completed his first full season leading the Orioles. In that edition, Baltimore hardly made much of a ripple on the hot stove, as the rebuild was still in its early stages. This upcoming winter meetings, however, could have a different tint.
After a trade-deadline sell-off of closer Jorge López and first baseman Trey Mancini, Elias said the Orioles will undergo “liftoff from here.” How steep the liftoff remains to be seen — although this week could be telling. Ahead of the winter meetings, The Baltimore Sun’s Orioles reporters, Nathan Ruiz and Andy Kostka, give their expert opinions about how the next week and the team’s offseason might progress.
1. What is the Orioles’ top winter meetings priority?
Kostka: At the end of the season, Elias spoke in generalities in regard to where the Orioles will look to improve their roster this offseason. At the General Manager Meetings in Las Vegas last month, he was more precise: Elias would like to add starting pitching and offensive help.
Of the two, the top priority should be adding an impact offensive piece to a lineup that hit .236 last year — and whose .243 average with runners in scoring position ranked 23rd in MLB. The starting rotation, meanwhile, posted a 4.35 ERA compared to a 5.99 ERA in 2021. With right-handed prospect Grayson Rodriguez poised to challenge for a rotation place, Baltimore should receive another boost in that area, even with the loss of right-hander Jordan Lyles.
Ruiz: Although the Orioles’ lineup could use upgrades, some of those could reasonably come just from having a full year of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson in it. This team, though, needs an opening day starter, the type of pitcher who manager Brandon Hyde would unquestionably deploy in the first game of a playoff series. Although John Means could qualify as the latter once he returns from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, there is, for now, a gaping hole atop Baltimore’s rotation.
There’s certainly hope that Rodriguez could someday develop into the type of pitcher worthy of filling it, with DL Hall, Kyle Bradish and others who have already made their debuts also yet to reach their potential. But that young mix needs someone to front it, and whether it’s a signing, a trade or establishing the groundwork for either, that should be Elias’ top priority next week.
2. Could the Orioles be involved in trade discussions as buyers?
Kostka: With a surplus of infield prospects, Baltimore could search for a veteran starting pitcher still under team control via a trade. The Orioles have been a selling club throughout Elias’ tenure, even amid a surprise playoff push last year.
But the Orioles are now in position for that to shift toward adding major league talent rather than bolstering a farm system that ranks No. 1 in baseball. Henderson has established himself already in the majors, but Joey Ortiz, Connor Norby and Jordan Westburg could be enticing trade candidates for a team looking to sell a front-end starter.
Ruiz: They should be, and it actually might be more practical than being major players in free agency. Justin Verlander, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, is projected to receive a two-year deal with an average annual value of at least $35 million. Meanwhile, Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes, the 2021 National League recipient, likely won’t necessitate that much total in his final two years of arbitration before becoming a free agent.
Acquiring Burnes or any other arbitration-eligible trade candidate would of course cost the Orioles prospects on top of that player’s salary, but they’ve built a deep farm system that can withstand losses. As Elias said at the end of the regular season, “there’s going to be times when our richness in players is going to be what we have to lean into in order to win out here.”
3. Can the Orioles find value again in the Rule 5 draft?
Kostka: Last year, the Rule 5 draft was canceled as part of the MLB lockout. But every year since 2006, when there is a Rule 5 draft, the Orioles have selected at least one player. They haven’t all been hits, but the additions include the likes of outfielder Anthony Santander and right-hander Tyler Wells.
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There isn’t as much of a need to fill roster space with inexpensive talent as past years, but Baltimore can still add to its bullpen with a glut of hard-throwing options who have not yet shown the ability to throw strikes at a consistent enough rate to crack the major leagues.
Right-hander Steven Cruz of the Minnesota Twins fits into that mold, with a fastball that can hit triple digits. In Double-A, the 23-year-old struck out 72 batters in 56 innings, yet he had a 1.589 WHIP. Right-hander Andrew Schultz of the Philadelphia Phillies is another interesting possibility out of the bullpen, given his strong slider-fastball mix.
Ruiz: Sure. Andy offers a couple of intriguing options, and Baseball America has a wider list of fascinating players who other organizations left available (none of them are Orioles prospects). By virtue of so frequently making Rule 5 picks, Baltimore has a decent track record, but if the winter meetings end and we’re talking about a player who’s not even guaranteed to be in the organization come opening day as the Orioles’ most significant addition of the week, that will be justifiably disappointing.
4. Does the lid finally lift off Baltimore’s spending jar?
Kostka: Not fully. The Orioles are progressing, but they might still be a year away from shelling out for one of the top free agents on the market. Instead, much of the spending might come in the form of tying down several arbitration-eligible players while adding mid-level veterans to an otherwise young team.
Ruiz: No one outside the organization knows exactly how much coinage is in that jar, but it wouldn’t take much for Baltimore to bump its payroll. Including projected salaries for all of their retained players, the Orioles rank 29th of the majors’ 30 teams with a projected payroll of $44.3 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Doubling that gets them up to 22nd, less than $2 million ahead of the rebuilding Washington Nationals.
The Cleveland Guardians and Tampa Bay Rays — the type of “transactional” franchises Elias oft points to as models for what he wants to build in Baltimore — are projected to be 26th and 27th, respectively, with payrolls between $62 million and $69 million, though both playoff teams ended last year with higher figures. Given what Baltimore did last year with a meager payroll, an increase even to that range could prove enough to get the Orioles to the postseason, but that also doesn’t mean the organization shouldn’t aim higher.