Right now, baseball is at a standstill. I don’t mean that in the usual “no one is signing free agents” offseason sense. No, as we are all quite aware of, the owners of the 30 Major League Baseball franchises have locked out the members of the MLB Players Association in a tactic to protect themselves and eventually push CBA negotiations forward. For at least the next month or two, baseball news will be relegated to occasional meetings of the two sides, punctuated by bittersweet moments of long-overdue Hall of Fame honors and lots of discussions about other Hall of Fame debates.
Eventually, players and owners will reach an agreement. It’s possible games will be lost, but let’s be positive and say that we get a full 162-game season. Now of course, there’s a downside to this; it means that the Orioles will (1) have to field a team next year and (2) play all 162 games (barring rainouts).
The Orioles aren’t going to be good next year. I know, shocking. It says a lot when the consensus “good” outcome for a team is winding up fewer than 10 games under .500. But that’s where we are. Building up talent takes time, and this teardown method is deemed by the Elias front office as the best possible option, under this CBA at least.
But still, there are ways to improve a team for minimal cost that don’t compromise the development of their young players, even if those same young players often are sometimes lacking in ceiling. With that in mind, let’s look at 22 low-cost players who the Orioles should be able to pursue on short-term deals. These players generally fall into easy-to-identify needs, starting with…
Ramon Urias was a great find as a shortstop last year, coming in with a 115 wRC+ and deserving of some down-ballot Rookie of the Year support had he played a full 162 games (And if the ballot had more than 3 spots). Though I see him more at the less-valuable keystone, with just over one year of service time, he remains a low-cost asset with the potential for above-average production.
However, there are some problems. Urias is 27, which doesn’t exactly set him on the right side of the aging curve in the long run. Also, he isn’t a good fielder, as the numbers suggest he doesn’t have range. But most importantly for the purpose of putting 9 players on the field, Urias can’t play two positions at once.
Orioles’ second basemen were horrendous last year. Combined, including nearly 100 PAs from Urias, they put up a .192/.245/.282 slash line for a 43 wRC+. For reference’s sake, Mario Mendoza (The patron saint of poor hitting middle infielders) had a career line of .215/.245/.262 for 38 wRC+. At least Mendoza was generally considered a good fielder; according to Statcast, the Orioles ranked 28th in 2B defense (-6 OAA) and 29th in SS defense (-17 OAA).
As intriguing as Jorge Mateo continues to be, I’d prefer to look externally. The Orioles need to pair Urias with someone who can at least do one of hitting or fielding (Unlike last year), and Urias’ flexibility allows the team to pursue either middle infield spot. While the shortstop market is historically deep, it’s safe to say that both Carlos Correa and Trevor Story are unlikely options. Let’s look down a tier. (1) Jonathan Villar and (2) Andrelton Simmons are veteran options with varying degrees of production. Villar represents a more bat-first option, with a career 97 wRC+ and a .249/.322/.416 campaign for the Mets in 2021. Simmons, even separate of a disastrous 2021, has always been a bit worse at the plate (87 career wRC+). What sets Simmons apart is his defensive wizardry; it’s not crazy to say he might be one the best defensive shortstops in history. Either of these buys would probably command $8M-$10M yearly in a deal, assuming they would only sign for a single year.
But they aren’t the only options. (3) Jose Iglesias has always been more in the Simmons defense-first camp, no matter what he did in his BABIP-fueled 2020 craze. He’s a level down from Simmons in reputation and production, but also cost; probably $4M in this crowded market. (4) Josh Harrison hits the sweet spot more than most (13th in sweet spot percentage), but with no power behind it (17th-lowest average exit velocity). This limits his offensive ceiling, but he brings more to the plate than Simmons or Igelsias. That said, he’s a solid defensive asset, the fifth-best defensive 2B by Statcast (8 OAA). (5) Donovan Solano has never had more than 400 PAs in a season, but since 2019 he’s had a slash line of .308/.354/.435 in 953 PAs. He’s 33 years old, has mixed views about his defense (At best he’s neither positive nor negative), and his 2021 had a larger platoon split than league average (125 wRC+ against LHP, 97 against RHP), but it’s still playable. Either Harrison or Solano could command $5-6M on an open market.
Some outside the box thinking brings us to (6) Brad Miller. He came up as a shortstop, mostly played first for the Phillies last year, but his best position defensively since 2019 has been an admittedly small sample at 2B (3 OAA). He brings power at the plate (.227 ISO in 2021, 26th in exit velocity at 92.4 MPH), and over a full season the Eutaw Street shots he’s capable of should be worth the $3-4M he’d likely command.
While second base was a black hole, third base was…well…also a black hole, but a smaller one. Instead of being the worst in baseball, the Orioles came in 29th in wRC+ (73), leading only the Phillies. The market isn’t as deep as shortstop, but Kris Bryant and Kyle Seager are there. Of course, neither are coming to Baltimore, so we’ll have to dig deeper. But the lack of depth means that there isn’t nearly as many diamonds in the rough either. However, it’s worth noting that many of the middle infield options could also hack it at third.
(7) Matt Duffy had his first good season since 2018. He’s always provided teams with plenty of positional flexibility, passable offense, and adequate defense. After the improved 2021, he’ll probably be due a raise over $1M he made last year. (8) Ronald Torreyes is a big reason why the Phillies were the worst third base group, but he’s a defensive plus, 29 years old, and has a huge platoon split (102 wRC+ against LHP and 48 wRC+ against RHP). As the short side of a platoon he can be effective and a cheap option, possibly even signable on a minor league deal.
This position is Adley Rutschman, but unless something changes in the new CBA he won’t be up until June. So, the Orioles need someone who can hold the fort for 60 days and then catch once every tenth day afterwards. I have a preference for someone who leans towards defense, which is hard to find in this group. (9) Stephen Vogt has been neutral defensive the past few years, and at least has a history of decent offense, 2021 notwithstanding. He’d at worst cost $1M-2M, which is admittedly around a million more than Jacob Nottingham for not a ton of extra production.
I’m not exactly a fan of Jordan Lyles for $7M. $4M, sure, but not $7M. That said, he does spin his fastball and curveball well, so maybe a focusing of the arsenal (He throws six pitches) and a grip adjustment may make the deal a steal. What I do like is the fact that the Orioles are willing to spend $7M on a pitcher who will likely not be on the next Orioles playoff team. It opens up a lot of possibilities for guys to fill out the 10th-worst rotation by FIP since 2000 and 5th-worst by ERA over the same time span.
(10) Matthew Boyd‘s slider has backed up the past couple of years, but he still brings a decent rest of the arsenal. He still spins a fastball decently and can be a solid 4.00 ERA/FIP guy, similar to Lyles. (11) Kwang Hyun Kim has been alright for St. Louis, but righties have killed him (.304 wOBA against RHB versus .228 against LHB). His slider and fourseam have been effective despite their lack of raw stuff and seems to manage contact well. He might need a second year to sign, but he’ll probably command a similar AAV. (12) Tyler Anderson spins his fastball, limits hard contact, and gets batters to chase (if not whiff). He tends to perform near his peripherals, so we can generally expect an ERA/FIP in the low-to-mid 4s. He probably regresses from a resurgent 2021, but still can be effective. (13) Brett Anderson got roughed up in 2021, but still throws one of baseball’s best changeups (-8 runs). He doesn’t strike anyone out, but also doesn’t walk many. All that tends to add up to ERAs/FIPs similar to this group’s low-to-mid 4s profile. All these guys probably wind out in Lyles’ range; $7M AAV, possibly worth a team option.
There are even a few stretches beyond the $7M range that don’t break into the Carlos Rodon range. (14) Danny Duffy isn’t as good as his 2021 line (2.51 ERA/3.40 FIP) suggests. But he upped his chase rate and whiffs in 2021, likely due to a small up in movement. All told, it suggests a $10M AAV, maybe a little more for a one-year deal. (15) Yusei Kikuchi had a rough 2021, but peripherals suggest he has more to give. His fastball, cutter, and changeup all play well, but his slider was rough. He turned down a $13M player option, so this suggests to me he’s looking for multiple years, 2/$22M probably is what it would take.
Of course, then there’s the bargain bin. (16) Vince Velasquez‘s FIP is lower than as his ERA, and his xFIP is lower than his FIP. He can still spin a fastball and is young enough to have something left in the tank. (17) Wily Peralta probably isn’t a 3.00 ERA pitcher like in 2021, but he also had the best splitter in baseball (-4.5 runs per 100 pitches). While a Sinker/Splitter combo might not play great with the Oriole infield, it’s still work taking a shot on. (18) Chad Kuhl got knocked around in Pittsburgh, but his most-used pitch is a pretty decent slider (-8 runs). All these guys are in the camp of a small major league guaranteed deal, or a minor league deal with 30-day opt out.
The Orioles’ bullpen matched the starters, turning in the season’s worst performance by both ERA and FIP (10th-worst bullpen ERA since 2000). I tend to follow the “relievers are highly variable so just don’t overpay for relievers” dictum. But even under this philosophy, there are plenty of intriguing options.
I was tempted to put (19) Collin McHugh as a “starter,” but the Orioles wouldn’t go for the opener strategy. Despite being a righty, McHugh shuts down lefties thanks to an elite slider/cutter combo. Pinning down his value is tough, as it is with all relievers, but he could be a highly tradable piece and totally worth it if you could get him for $6M or less.
(20) Ryan Tepera‘s 1.6 WAR in 2021 exceeded his previous career WAR (1.1 WAR in 234 IP). Consider it evidence for my previous statement about reliever volatility. But he’s another slider-first pitcher (-7 runs), and paired it with an similarly impressive fastball (-8 runs). He has a short track record, and thus I’m wary of paying him much beyond $4M-5M.
Among bounceback candidates, (21) Jake Diekman is interesting. He put up a serviceable 3.86 ERA, but walked too many people (5.04 BB/9) and gave up 10 homers in 61 flyballs. His fastball suffered in 2021 (1 runs after -15 runs from 2019-20), but his slider still plays. If he recovers the fastball, he could be a great value for minimal cost, I’m thinking $1M plus incentives.
Finally, (22) Jeurys Familia took a lot more damage than he should have, with a slugging against 79 points higher than the quality of contact suggested. He was in the 66th percentile of exit velocity, 68th percentile in xwOBA, 66th percentile in chase rate, and throws his fastball nearly at 98 MPH. His 3.94 ERA in 2021 means someone will pay him over the minimum, but he should be getable for $2M-$3M.
There’s always value for teams not willing to wade into the elite tiers of free agency. Sometimes it’s a lottery ticket hope, other times it’s a veteran who saw his market dry up. The Orioles have obvious holes, and seem to indicate a willingness to begin spending modestly for external help. Who knows what the financial landscape will look like in a few months, but when it comes time, hopefully the team will move on a few supplementary pieces.
Dr. Stephen Loftus received his Ph.D. in Statistics from Virginia Tech in 2015 and is an Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Randolph-Macon College. Prior to that, he worked as an Analyst in Baseball Research and Development for the Tampa Bay Rays, focusing on the Amateur Draft. He formerly wrote at FanGraphs and Beyond the Box Score. As a lifelong fan of the Orioles, he fondly remembers the playoff teams of 1996-97 and prefers to forget constantly impending doom of Jorge Julio, Albert Belle’s contract, and most years between 1998 and 2011.