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How much is too much for the Orioles to spend in free agency?

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When the Orioles dealt Jonathan Villar, the club signaled it won’t pay top dollar for short-term returns. There are several holes on next year’s team, but will Baltimore spend to fill any of them?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

“And, like that, he’s gone.”

Jonathan Villar isn’t Keyser Soze, but just like that, he’s gone. The most valuable player from a team lacking valuable players? Gone. The Orioles best option at, not one, but two defensive positions? Gone. One of the few players that rate above average on a very below average team? Gone.

And hardly anyone was surprised.

By now, everyone around here understands the Orioles are in the early stages of a rebuild. They understand that the O’s will not be spending big money this offseason, and that they have little interest in any players that do not factor into Baltimore’s long term plan. Just in case you weren’t sure, Mike Elias and the organization provided another example with Villar.

The Orioles were eventually able to nab a former 14th-round pick in exchange for the 4-WAR player. I’m guessing not many knew Easton Lucas’s name before this week, but the O’s did. Elias said the Birds had an extensive file on Lucas prior to the 2019 draft, and while they liked what they saw, they clearly did not value him more than a 13th-round pick.

Whether Lucas will eventually contribute in Baltimore remains to be seen. The reality is that he’s just another scratch-off lottery ticket that the O’s will staff on the farm. Letting go of Villar had nothing to do with Easton Lucas. The Birds were prepared to let him walk for free. It all boiled down to the $10 million that Villar was projected to receive in arbitration, and that’s okay too.

The Orioles listened to offers for Villar at last year’s trade deadline, and likely made him available immediately after the season came to a close. After the O’s placed the 28-year-old on waivers, a deal still wasn’t made until the last minute. A deal that only netted a 14th-rounder. Sure, teams knew Baltimore did not have a lot of leverage here, but no club was jumping at the chance to pay the guy $10+ million.

The question that stems from this has little to do with the value of a speedy middle infielder with some pop. While some may wonder why the Orioles cannot afford $10 million contracts now, the better question is when will they?

Elias has been very clear that winning a few extra games is not the club’s primary focus. After all, keeping four wins on next year’s club doesn’t catch the Yankees atop the AL East. He wants to improve the organization at every level, and sometimes that requires tough decisions like letting Villar walk.

Eventually, and hopefully sooner rather than later, the Orioles need to show improvement on the field. No one expects Baltimore to compete for a division crown next season, but a bit more on-field success wouldn’t hurt. Would it?

There is definitely value in having the top pick in the MLB draft. If you’ve got to be bad, why not be the worst? Adley Rutschman should excel for the Orioles in a few years, but that doesn’t mean that Chance Sisco shouldn’t improve now.

The Astros lost over 100 games three consecutive season before improving to 70-92 in 2014. Houston finished above .500 the next season, and won 100 games in 2017. The Orioles are still a year or two away from taking the next step, but does that mean they cannot attempt to upgrade now?

Would the clubs young hitters benefit from hitting with a speedy Villar on first base? Would Richie Martin profit from time at Triple-A instead of filling Villar’s place on Opening Day? More than likely. The Orioles can always bring in a cheaper veteran to compete for the spot, but he won’t play like Villar.

I’m not saying the Orioles needed to tender Villar a deal. He wouldn’t make the difference alone, and the Orioles can invest the money into any other area Elias vowed to improve when he arrived. But where is the line?

The Orioles finished dead last in baseball last year with a 5.59 team ERA. They dealt Andrew Cashner prior to the deadline, and will likely deal Dylan Bundy before the start of the season. Aaron Brooks elected to pitch in South Korea, and the clubs current depth chart lists only four starting pitchers (including Bundy).

Even if Alex Cobb stays healthy, he and John Means cannot split a 162-game workload. Next year’s roster requires multiple Major League starting pitchers, and the Orioles should not hesitate to buy a few this season.

Elias recently shared that he’s looking for major and minor league starting pitching, along with a veteran infielder and additional depth. While the club can take several low-risk chances on minor league deals, the Orioles need proven MLB pitchers right now.

How will Hunter Harvey and Dillon Tate develop in the back-end of the bullpen if they never pitch with a lead? Does anyone really benefit from the club surrendering double-digit runs three times a week?

The Orioles didn’t need to pay Villar. They don’t need to break the bank this season, and they can still lose 100 games. But the club should still invest in Major League starting pitching and professional level players to round out the defense. If it takes a few extra million on a one or two year deal to convince a guy to come to Baltimore, they should pay it. There’s always a chance they can trade a guy or two after a little more development on the farm.

How would you like to see the Orioles operate in free agency this offseason, and are you confident in the steps they will take? Can they afford to improve in the short term, or should they save the money and seek the top pick in 2021? Let us know below!