Orioles: Discussing Free Agent Starting Pitching
It won’t knock anyone over to suggest that the Baltimore Orioles need help in their pitching staff. Only three teams carried a worse ERA than the 75-87 Orioles (4.97), and those teams lost 92 (Mets), 94 (Reds) and 98 (Tigers) games.
But while there’s a viable path to success on the relief front, that’s clearly not true with the rotation. The relief corps sorely missed almost all of its stalwarts at one point or another last season — including most notably, Zach Britton throwing just 37.1 innings — and as a result was middle of the pack with a 3.93 ERA (12th) and a higher reliance on grounders (49.1 percent) than strikeouts (7.6 K/9, worst in MLB).
The starters, though? Woof.
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Orioles starters compiled a collective 5.70 ERA. The FIP (5.23) wasn’t much better, as they didn’t keep the ball on the ground (41.5 percent), allowed far too many homers (1.69 per nine) and posted respectable strikeout rates (7.7 K/9) which were waylaid by pedestrian walk marks (3.7 per nine).
Dylan Bundy started hot and got hot again at the end, but the middle and very end of the season were questionable. To his credit, he’ll be entering just his age-25 season, so he’s far from a finished product, and the results were overall rather encouraging. Kevin Gausman — entering his age-27 season — failed to take a step forward, though he got markedly better as the season wore on:
- April – 7.50 ERA
- May – 4.30 ERA
- June – 6.41 ERA
- July – 3.63 ERA
- August – 3.48 ERA
- September/October – 3.34 ERA
…so regardless, one can at least buy some hope here as well. But after that, things are bleak. Jeremy Hellickson will be gone, and was absolutely brutal in his brief time with the O’s (6.97 ERA). The Ubaldo Jimenez contract is mercifully over after nearly 600 innings at a 5.22 ERA. But things were so bad that the Orioles have already made preliminary inquiries about reunions with Wade Miley and Chris Tillman.
Miley, the elder statesman of the duo and the one who performed better this year, had a 5.61 ERA with a respectable 8.1 K/9 but also 5.3 BB/9 and a 1.73 WHIP. Restated, that’s nearly two baserunners per inning. Tillman was an absolute mess in his 24 games (19 starts) posting a 7.84 ERA and 1.89 WHIP — indefensible numbers for any pitcher, let alone one who has been in the big leagues for as long as he did and still somehow threw nearly 100 innings.
There isn’t much help in the system, either. Gabriel Ynoa pitched respectably in a nine-game audition — 4.15 ERA, 4.31 FIP in 34.2 innings — but there is no reason to expect he can be much more than No. 5 starter at best at this point.
The MLB Pipeline top prospect list for the Orioles lists DL Hall (No. 4), Tanner Scott (No. 6), Hunter Harvey (No. 7) and Keegan Akin (No. 8) as the pitchers among the team’s top-10 list.
Hall is 19, hasn’t pitched above the GCL and walked 10 batters in 10.1 innings last year. Scott got a quick cup of coffee with the Orioles this year — it did not go well — and he walked 46 batters in 69 innings at Double-A. Harvey is great when he’s healthy, but he pitched 18.2 innings this year and still hasn’t pitched above A-ball as a 22-year-old (23 in December). Akin posted a 4.14 ERA as a 22-year-old at High-A Frederick with more than a strikeout per inning but also a 1.35 WHIP and 4.1 walks per nine.
Nobody’s walking through that door on day one who is going to make a lick of a difference at the outset, more or less.
So the Orioles are going to have to look to the outside for help.
The question is specifically which price points the Orioles will be able to shop at. Does it make sense to add a ton of pitching — in terms of bodies or dollars — with Manny Machado a free agent at season’s end?
According to Cot’s Contracts — housed at Baseball Prospectus — the Orioles have seen a significant payroll increase over each of the last five years, peaking at $164 million and change to start the 2017 season. What hurts in a lot of ways for 2018 is the money committed to players who aren’t guaranteed to help.
Mark Trumbo won’t help pitchers defensively, and he hit just .234/.289/.397 with a tidy $12.5 million due to him next year. Chris Davis will make over $21 million next year, and is coming off his second straight and third season in the last four with an OPS under .800. It was well under that mark (.732) in 2017.
Overall, the payroll estimate for the players already signed plus dollars earmarked to contracts that are expected to get done is about $130 million, give or take the $7 million player option that Welington Castillo might in fact decline. He had a nice year offensively (.282/.323/.490) but was rated one of the poorest framers in the game by StatCorner (minus-13 runs above average), which again didn’t help pitchers. Still, getting any sort of replacement for him will possibly cut into that budget, unless Caleb Joseph and Chance Sisco are handed the reins back there — a realistic possibility.
It’s worth wondering where ownership will want to see the payroll settle moving forward. At end-of-2016/start-of-2017 numbers, that might leave about $30-ish million to play with — though that’s not considering any changes being made to the offense. The offense might be a finished product, but if that’s the case, it was only middle-of-the-pack last year, finishing 16th in runs scored and tied for 15th in wRC+.
It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, basically. The offense could reasonably see upswings from almost every key offensive contributor — maybe not Trey Mancini, whoever catches and Jonathan Schoop — but can enough progress be made on either side to prop up whatever is left on the other?
It’s clear adding to the offense at the expense of the pitching is a no-go. There really isn’t room for another starter to play on the offense, and the team will just have to live with the deals it has signed. So if the payroll remains static, $30 million isn’t an insignificant amount of money to play with overall — though adding two or maybe three starters on that is not going to be easy.
Exploring a trade is a natural avenue to pursue, since teams can sometimes have spare parts that are the “other person’s trash is your treasure” scenario, and the Orioles are obviously Fred Sanford in this situation. Someone like Scott Kazmir or Brandon McCarthy of the Dodgers could make sense. The Dodgers are going to be flush with so-so pitching, and while neither is cheap, the cost to acquire them shouldn’t be, either. It couldn’t hurt to ask about some of their other interesting arms either, like Brock Stewart — an obviously talented youngster without a clear path to playing time in crowded system.
These are the most likely avenues to pursue on the trade front since the Orioles don’t have a ton to offer from their farm system. In other words, they’re going to have to look for teams looking to offload arms who might have a bit more value in them than they’re currently showing — a delicate balance to strike.
The free-agent list isn’t necessarily flush with rich options, but there are some guys who are intriguing — again depending on the price point.
The guys are the high end don’t feel all that likely. Yu Darvish will likely command a deal in excess of $25 million, and while he’d look terrific at the front of this rotation, that doesn’t leave much left for what’s at least 1.5 open spots. The same is true for Masahiro Tanaka, assuming he opts out.
A reunion with Jake Arrieta doesn’t feel all that likely, either. He might command a shorter deal at “only” $20 million per, but going back to where things starter — and poorly, at that — just doesn’t seem to make any sense.
That’ll leave the Orioles being a bit thrifty. To fans that might not sound ideal, but with two guys atop the rotation who have potential to hold down those spots capably, shopping for the back-end isn’t as daunting as it seems. It’ll take being studious and perhaps a bit risk-averse, but it also works in the sense that the team won’t be tied down to massive deals should Machado leave following 2018.
C.C. Sabathia makes quite a bit of sense in this respect, though it feels like he might get the Hiroki Kuroda plus-one treatment in the Bronx. What that means is that he’ll have a standing one-year offer around $12 million per year to return as long as he pitches fairly well in the previous season. He certainly did that in 2017, as he posted in lowest ERA in five years with respectable rates across the board. Still, letting the Yankees take that risk on a 37-year-old lefty with four straight years of a FIP around 4.30 — or higher! — feels like the right play here.
Alex Cobb might be the thrift shopper’s dream, as he’s clearly in the second tier of starters when he’s healthy, but that risk will drive his cost down a bit. Cobb’s heading into his age-30 season, has thrown just 201.1 innings over the last three years total and has never (!) thrown 180 innings or made 30 starts. If he never gets back his strikeout stuff, he might be Hellickson 2.0 — except on a larger deal. But he did have Tommy John surgery — largely reliable among some of the arm procedures out there — so he could be a solid bargain at, say, four years and $48 million. Would you give him the Ubaldo deal? I think someone will.
Lance Lynn falls into a similar path, though he’s been more durable and was in his first year back this year. He’ll probably get quite a bit more than that, but could still be a value pickup. Again, there’s plenty of risk.
A name that’ll pop up on a ton of shopping lists for teams in the lower tiers is Tyler Chatwood. Yes, the guy with an ERA nearing 5.00 with too many walks in Coors Field will have suitors. First of all, he’s heading into just his age-28 season, which makes him a relative pup among free-agent starters. But it’s his work outside of Coors that will garner him attention this winter. At home, Chatwood posted a 6.01 ERA, while on the road he was at a much more reasonable 3.49 with a 1.29 WHIP. He still had too many walks on the road, and his groundball rate should play just about anywhere — including Coors! — so again, there’s risk here. But on a one-year deal for $8-10 million, he makes plenty of sense. Again, deals coinciding with a potential Machado exit make sense for this club.
The final arm that makes quite a bit of sense for the O’s is lefty Jaime Garcia. He rolls plenty of grounders and keeps the ball in the park — especially attractive attributes in this day and age — and has thrown 171.2 and 157 innings in the seasons prior to this one. This year was a bit of a hiccup as he was traded twice and didn’t see consistent action down the stretch, but he was still healthy and reasonably effective until late in the season. Health risks will keep his costs down, but he’s only 31 and a three-year deal at, say, $36 million could make sense for both sides.
At different price points there are certainly other arms available — including some really fun buy-low guys like Wily Peralta, Drew Hutchison and others — but here’s what I see as reasonable targets for an Orioles team that shouldn’t blow it up…..yet.