In Mike Elias’ first two offseasons at the helm of the Baltimore Orioles, the club was notoriously quiet on the free agency front. But it’s hard to blame leadership for the lack of splashy free agent signings. The organization has required so much work from the bottom up and shows no realistic expectations of competing for a while, so any new big money contracts would be short-sighted and probably destined to fail.
Yet here we are in Elias’ third offseason as the Orioles’ GM, and he’s going to have to fill out the roster somehow. When it comes to starting pitching, it seems as though the proverbial veteran innings-eater(s) are on the table when it comes to players being targeted. Necessary, but hardly exciting.
In baseball there’s always a fine line between letting the young guys play and overexposing said young guys. So while the O’s have a handful of promising yet inexperienced starters, some of whom debuted last summer, they are of course obligated to protect — or block, depending on who you’re talking to — such prized, tender arms.
Orioles beat reporter Joe Trezza documented Elias’ desire for more starting pitching in a piece from early November, adding that...
...those signings could come on either Major League or Minor League deals, [as] Elias hinted at a free-agent strategy similar to the one the O’s have taken the past few winters. [The O’s] aren’t expected to be big spenders, by any stretch. But they expect again to target lower-level veteran help, like they did last winter with Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone.
Ah, LeBlanc and Milone. Two left-handers over the age of 30 who were originally signed to minor league deals, then had their contracts purchased and were slotted into the rotation right before the 2020 season began in late July.
LeBlanc’s season ended after six starts and an 8.06 ERA when he was placed on the injured list with what was termed a left elbow stress reaction. Milone over-performed with a 3.99 ERA in six starts and was rewarded with a trade to the Braves. It was only just announced a couple weeks ago that shortstop A.J. Graffanino and second baseman Greg Cullen were headed to Baltimore as the players-to-be-named later, thus completing the Milone trade months after it originally went down.
Looking back to Elias’ first offseason with the Birds, his only major league starting pitcher signing was Nate Karns. That didn’t work out so well. While Karns had a sparkling 0.00 ERA in an Orioles’ uniform — he actually allowed one unearned run — that was because he only made four appearances for the team, including two as an opener. After pitching a mere 5.1 innings, his season was lost to injury and he never pitched for the Orioles again.
Taking history into account, it would seem that we shouldn’t have high hopes for free agent pitcher signings this winter. Having said that, there is a long list of veteran starters out there who could potentially fill a spot in Baltimore’s rotation in 2021, so let’s take a quick look at a few candidates.
Collin McHugh and Mike Elias’ career paths overlapped with the Astros, the former having pitched for Houston from 2014-2019. Over those six seasons, the right-handed McHugh amassed a 3.63 ERA and 1.22 WHIP with 3.39 SO/W. He spent more time pitching out of the bullpen than the rotation in his final two years in Houston and he opted out of the 2020 season, but the O’s can probably offer him a better chance at a bounce-back than most clubs can.
In five plus years with the Braves, now 29-year-old starter Mike Foltynewicz had a 4.30 ERA, with his best season coming in 2018 when that number was 2.85. But he allowed six runs in 3.1 innings in his one and only start of the 2020 season before he was designated for assignment by the Braves. CBS Sports notes that “his velocity had dropped significantly, as had his weight.” So it sounds like he has a long way to go as far as a comeback, but that likely puts him in play even more for the Orioles.
If Baltimore wants to continue its trend of pursuing former Tampa Bay Rays pitchers, they could take a run at Chris Archer, who was recently granted free agency by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had a disappointing 2019 season, putting up a 5.19 ERA and 1.41 WHIP while allowing an average of 1.9 HR/9. After undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome this past June, Archer missed the entire 2020 season.
I know I’ve barely started to scratch the surface of potential free agent pitching targets, so feel free to sound off in the comments about anyone else you think could be a fit for the Orioles in 2021.