[Baltimore Sun] Five things we learned about the Orioles at the 2023 MLB winter meetings

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The Orioles this week spent four days at a hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, for what is normally the apex of the MLB offseason. They signed a closer, didn’t select a player in the Rule 5 draft for the first time since 2005 and tried navigating the gargantuan Gaylord Opryland Resort hosting the 2023 MLB winter meetings.

Here are five things we learned.

The Orioles believe they’ve got enough to repeat as AL East champs

Three members of the Orioles spoke to the media at the winter meetings: general manager Mike Elias, manager Brandon Hyde and backup catcher (and Nashville resident) James McCann.

All three were asked before the club signed closer Craig Kimbrel if they believed Baltimore’s current roster was good enough to repeat as American League East champions. As expected, they each answered yes.

“Yes, I do,” Elias said. “We won the division last year, 90-some percent of the team is back. It would not be ideal for us to be totally dormant all winter, and we’re going to do our best to avoid that. But we’re viewing this as a winter to augment this group and to reinforce it and supplement it and not reinvent it or supplant this group.”

“I do,” Hyde said. “I think we’re really talented, and I think our guys are going to continue to get better. … If we started tomorrow with what we have right now, I’d be more than happy with it.”

“100%,” McCann said. “That’s why it’s such an exciting time in Baltimore, knowing you could really do nothing and you have quality players in place.”

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It’s not hard to see why they’re confident given the club is coming off a 101-win campaign. But other AL East clubs are making aggressive moves, and the Orioles — stop if you’ve heard this before — are due for regression in 2024. But whether they’ve got enough won’t be known until next September.

The starting pitcher market might be tough to crack, but that shouldn’t prevent the Orioles from getting one

Elias was one of many to hypothesize that the sweepstakes for two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani — and to a lesser extent Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto — could be why the offseason has been slower so far this year.

But a handful of starting pitchers have been signed this offseason, and they’ve all been received what they were projected to earn by MLB Trade Rumors. Aaron Nola got $172 million over seven years. Sonny Gray’s $25 million average annual value is a few million more than projected. Eduardo Rodriguez reportedly received $80 million over four years.

There are still about seven starters in free agency and a few on the trade market who would provide the Orioles with the “rotation upgrade” Elias said the Orioles are pursuing, including Jordan Montgomery, Shota Imanaga and Marcus Stroman. All of those starters are expected to receive about $20 million or more per year on multiyear contracts. Elias hasn’t signed a free agent for more than one season in his tenure as Baltimore’s GM.

On the trade market, White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Corbin Burnes and the Cleveland Guardians’ Shane Bieber are the top targets, but each would likely cost multiple prospects.

“It’s a perennial thing, especially in the past 20-25 years when guys have started throwing this hard,” Elias said of the bull pitching market. “It seems that when the injury rates are up, the demand outstrips the supply. … There’s just not enough quality pitching to go around on the free agent market on a given year.”

None of this changes the fact that the Orioles are squarely in their window to make a run at a championship. Adding a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher would help that pursuit.

The signing of closer Craig Kimbrel to a one-year, $13 million deal helps stabilize the Orioles bullpen. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Without Félix Bautista but with Craig Kimbrel, the Orioles’ bullpen looks solid

It’s the offseason, so let’s get out a napkin and project the roster. In this case, let’s focus on the bullpen.

If the Orioles add a starting pitcher — a big if, but let’s make that assumption — mapping out the bullpen, even without injured closer Félix Bautista, actually inspires confidence.

Kimbrel is no longer one of the best closers in baseball, but Elias said the 14-year veteran stabilizes the bullpen. Kimbrel’s setup men will likely be sinkerballer Yennier Cano and left-handers Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez.

With the extra starting pitcher and assuming a fully healthy rotation, it’s possible that Tyler Wells, DL Hall and Cole Irvin are all in the bullpen. Wells and Hall have excelled in short-relief roles, while Irvin would be a long reliever. Then the final spot could be any of the following right-handers: Dillon Tate, Jacob Webb, Mike Baumann and Bryan Baker.

Kimbrel, Cano, Coulombe, Pérez, Wells, Hall, TBD and Irvin. Not too shabby.

A position player acquisition might not be necessary

Elias said the “biggest vacancy” among the roster’s group of position players is a backup outfielder behind Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander, perhaps one who hits right-handed. Other than that, the Orioles have the rest of their starting lineup secured, a backup catcher and plenty of infield depth.

But Elias also spoke highly of the club’s internal options for that spot to replace outfielder Aaron Hicks, a midseason signing in 2023 who had a resurgent campaign with the Orioles. That group includes Ryan McKenna and prospects Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad and Kyle Stowers, and Elias believes one of those players could break out in 2024.

“I still see a ton of playing time and a lot of at-bats outside of our three primary outfielders — Mullins, Santander and Hays — and right now this is up for grabs,” he said. “I don’t think any of them have really proven it yet over a long period of time in the majors, so we’re cognizant of that.

“These seasons are so unpredictable, and our three primary guys — knock on wood — odds are you’ll get some injuries. We’ve got to prepare for all that. We’ll talk to free agents who might be a fit to join our outfield mix, but we have high hopes for the names that I mentioned.”

It’s still unclear if the purse strings will be loosened

Nothing like ending a “five things we learned” story with something we didn’t learn. Let’s call this a reminder.

During Elias’ tenure, the Orioles have regularly ranked near the bottom of the sport in payroll. Given 2023 was the first season that began outside the rebuild, it’s possible the reluctance to spend will go away moving forward, but that remains to be seen. It’s still early in the offseason, and the first deal Elias handed out — $13 million to Kimbrel — was the largest guarantee he’s given to a free agent in his six offseasons at the helm.

However, it will take more than that to sign (or trade for) the “rotation upgrade” he seeks. And comments made by CEO and Chairman John Angelos to The New York Times in August — in which he bemoaned the challenges of being in a small market and how he would need to raise prices if he handed out a lucrative contract — don’t inspire confidence.

Will this be the offseason the Orioles make a splash and significantly increase their payroll? We’ll see.

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