Here we are at the outset of a new calendar year — also approximately halfway through the offseason — and the MLB Hot Stove landscape is desolate once again. And that means things are especially quiet for a team like the Orioles, who seem to be stuck in rebuild purgatory for the foreseeable future.
It makes you long for a winter like years past, when the Orioles were in hyperdrive mode, relatively speaking. Think back to the 2003-2004 offseason, when the Birds signed Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro. Remember early February 2008, when the club sent Erik Bedard to Seattle and got Adam Jones and others in return?
But now the most exciting yearly transactions for the O’s have become the Rule 5 Draft and even more so, the in-season MLB Amateur Draft.
Upper management seems content to almost exclusively develop and matriculate their own minor league players to the majors for now. Everyone once in a while, they may supplement with a minor league signing or two. But not much else.
No big expenditures and no long term commitments, which makes sense, I suppose. If the farm system starts delivering on its considerable promise, then things could turn around and stay that way for a while.
It’s hard not to blame the Orioles budget for the lack of activity though, especially considering GM Mike Elias’ remarks at the tail end of last year. The Orioles have never pretended to be a big market team, although once upon a time in the mid-to-late 90’s, they were consistently ranked among the sport’s largest payrolls.
Currently, Baltimore ranks dead last in MLB in total 2021 payroll at $42,190,362, according to Spotrac. Second to last place is occupied by the Pittsburgh Pirates at $42,525,000.
It’s clear that Elias has no desire to add payroll until he is sure that the club is in a position to realistically contend. But didn’t that happen a year or two ahead of schedule for the Houston Astros, Elias’ former team?
Anyway, because of how the Orioles are plodding their way through another offseason, we might as well look at some players that are going to need to have big seasons to cash in at the end of 2021. The players we are about to touch on may play different positions, but they will all be arbitration eligible for the first time in their careers after this season.
A player spends the first three years of his MLB career earning the league minimum, before getting a boost in salary each of the following three years, on a case by case basis. For a cost-conscious club like the Orioles, arbitration raises can be a make or break proposition. For example, Trey Mancini earned his second arbitration raise this offseason; on the flip side, the team severed ties with Renato Nunez and Hanser Alberto, who were both due for salary raises.
The following players are currently on Baltimore’s 40-man roster and will each be making just $575,000 in 2021, their final pre-arbitration year, according to Spotrac.
Catcher Chance Sisco has not been able to live up to his second round draft pedigree. In 525 MLB plate appearances over the past four years, Sisco is slashing only .205/.330/.361. That’s a far cry from his .305/.386/.430 career minor league batting line.
He may have a discerning eye at the plate, but he hasn’t been able to hit consistently at all. With Pedro Severino just earning a bump in salary and Adley Rutschman’s debut on the horizon, the 25-year-old Sisco might find himself squeezed out of the catching picture. But he could make that decision trickier down the line if the starts producing at the plate in 2021.
Richie Martin is a starting shortstop candidate now with Jose Iglesias getting moved to the West Coast. A former Rule 5 Draft pick, Martin only managed a .581 OPS and 54 OPS+ in 2019. He also missed the entirety of 2020 due to injury.
Another weak point for the 26-year-old Martin has been his defense, contrary to the reputation he brought over from Oakland. He put up a lowly -4.2 UZR and .971 fielding percentage in 2019 with the O’s. So while he’s got a long way to go at the plate and in the field, he also has a lot to prove.
Third baseman Rio Ruiz finished last season with nine home runs and a .222/.286/.427 triple slash line. Unfortunately, his numbers were quite similar with the O’s in 2019: .232/.306/.376. He is really hot and cold at the plate, with the ability to hit near .300 for a month and then slump below .240 for multiple months in a row.
But he still is only 26 years old. And since Baltimore is lacking in depth at the hot corner, Ruiz still has room to better establish himself in the upcoming season and if everything breaks right, perhaps earn a decent arbitration raise at the end of the year.