Orioles fans know that the free agent stove isn’t going to be that hot in Baltimore this winter. A team coming off a 115-loss season that just started what seems to be a massive organizational rebuild isn’t going to be throwing cash around to top free agents. After all, that would require a front office actually being in place.
The industry agrees with this sentiment. MLB Trade Rumors released their annual Top 50 MLB Free Agents With Predictions and does not predict one of those players signing in Baltimore. In Jim Bowden’s piece highlighting the 35 best free agents and where they fit, he mentions the Orioles as potential fits for only two players. Forget hot, the stove may not even be lukewarm.
But the Orioles do need to add players to their 2019 roster. Anybody who watched this team in September knows that. They jettisoned Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Brad Brach, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton at the trading deadline. Adam Jones will likely depart as a free agent. A new front office may want to complete the teardown of the major league roster by trading remaining assets for young talent. Possible trade candidates are Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, Andrew Cashner, Jonathan Villar, Mark Trumbo, and Richard Bleier (the last two depending on recovery from injury).
Roch Kubatko indicated that the team will be at least somewhat active in the free agency market. He specifically cites question marks in right field, third base, catcher, and middle infield. Any trades made will most likely bring back players who are young and not ready for the majors. So yes, it appears as though the Orioles will have to sign some free agents in order to field anything that resembles a major league team.
In addition to the need to put a somewhat competitive club on the field after a disastrous 2018 season (how would the fanbase and attendance react to another 115-loss season?), there is another need to sign some free agents: they could be flipped at the trade deadline for prospects.
The Orioles farm system was universally ranked in the bottom third of the league coming into the 2018 season. July trades, the drafting of Grayson Rodriguez and Blaine Knight, getting back into the international market, and having the first overall pick in June’s draft will all positively impact the talent pipeline. With that said, the O’s minor league system is by no means great. Any opportunity to add talent and/or depth to it should be taken advantage of. Without many quality assets left to trade for minor league talent, signing free agents is one way of paving the way for trades this summer.
It goes without saying that the Orioles should target free agents who are willing to accept one or two year deals so that the financial commitment isn’t overbearing if a trade doesn’t work out. The bottom half of MLB Trade Rumors’ list is comprised of projected one or two year deals. The other half of the equation is a player signing in Baltimore would need to be willing to play on a really bad team.
What positions should the O’s target in free agency (position by position list of free agents found here)? The only two players Jim Bowden mentions the Orioles as fits for are outfielders Adam Jones and Carlos Gonzalez. I would love to see Jones back in Baltimore for sentimental reasons, but the outfield and DH appear to be set with some combination of Trey Mancini, Cedric Mullins, Mark Trumbo, and DJ Stewart. A host of other young outfielders could be ready at some point this year and it wouldn’t be wise for the Orioles to block major league ready prospects. I would hold off on signing an outfielder unless the deal is too good to pass up.
Third base was mentioned by Kubatko as a potential position of need, but the list of available players is.... uninspiring. There is not one player (with a realistic chance of signing here) that I’d want. Renato Nunez it is!
Depending on where Jonathan Villar plays and if Tim Beckham is non-tendered, middle infield is an area where the O’s could sign a free agent. There are several above-replacement level players on that list, including some who have had productive seasons recently. Many will get short contracts.
Pitching, starting and relief, is where I think the Orioles should be most active. There is definitely a need, as Buck Showalter had tremendous difficulty getting through games with his pitching staff in September. After Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb, and Andrew Cashner, there are no proven major league ready options to fill out the rotation. Out in the bullpen, a solid veteran group was decimated by the July trades. Mychal Givens, a 28-year-old who was drafted as an infielder, is now the elder statesman.
If pitchers down on the farm prove themselves ready over the summer, there is always a market for pitchers at the trade deadline. A look at a wrap-up of last year’s deadline trades indicates just how in demand pitching is. Teams are relying more and more on relievers in the postseason, making even slightly above average arms valuable. Not every player traded in July is at the caliber of Zach Britton; many are barely above replacement level. Those are the types of players who will accept one-year contracts this winter.
We have weeks and months to debate exactly which players the Orioles should target as the market ebbs and flows. But for now I’m arguing that the Warehouse should be selectively active in the free agent market despite embarking on a rebuild. There are players available who are cheap, would upgrade the roster, and could be flipped to further restock the farm system over the summer.