The Orioles snuck in one last bit of pending news last night before MLB owners unanimously halted all offseason action by imposing a lockout on their players. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the team has agreed to terms with free agent pitcher Jordan Lyles on a one-year contract that guarantees $7 million.
Due to the lockout, this contract will be in official limbo until transactions resume, as it is still pending a physical. We all know that with the Orioles more than any team, the physical step of the contract always has the potential to cause a snag, but even for the Orioles it is an uncommon occurrence to have a contract that gets reported by mainstream press get wiped out before it’s completed by the physical. Lyles will probably become an Oriole eventually.
Lyles has essentially already been an Oriole in spirit for at least two years. The most recent team he’s been playing for in his 11-year MLB career is the Rangers. In both the shortened 2020 season and the regular-length 2021 season, Lyles led all American League pitchers in earned runs allowed. His combined ERA with Texas was 5.60.
You might be wondering why the Orioles would bother with Lyles. I’m also wondering. It’s essentially the most Dan Duquette signing that has been made in the Mike Elias era, so much so that I can blow the dust off my Dan Duquette quote machine to see what he’d say about this signing. Duquette machine, what would you say about this one?
Jordan Lyles is a qualified major league pitcher with a track record of pitching a lot of innings in tough ballparks to pitch. He’s a four pitch pitcher whose mix we think will play well in our division and he’ll help stabilize our starting rotation and help our ball club next year.
(For complete clarity, note that the above block quote is not a real quote from Duquette or anyone. It is a joke.)
Lyles has a career that’s kind of impressive, from a certain point of view. He has pitched in 11 seasons. That’s genuinely a long track record. The problem is that his track record is bad. He has a negative Wins Above Replacement over his career, currently sitting at -2.5 over 1,147.1 innings.
Like I said, impressive, in the sense that it’s impressive that someone who has been a negative value player in more than half of the seasons of his 11-year career, including this year, can still get himself a major league contract that guarantees $7 million for his age 31 season. In addition to leading the AL in earned runs, he also led it in home runs allowed in 2021, serving up 38 taters. Welcome to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, baby!
There is some logic to this signing beyond just chalking it up as part of the ongoing plan to lose as many games as possible. The one thing that Lyles could hang his hat on in 2021 is that he threw a lot of innings. He was one of just 20 pitchers in all of MLB to hit the 180 innings mark. Lyles did this despite never having done it in his career before; he had never previously threw any more than 141.2 innings in a season.
One of the many sad facts of the 2021 Orioles starting rotation is that you can plug in a pitcher with 180 innings of 5.15 ERA and as long as he’s not replacing John Means, that makes for a significant upgrade to the rotation. There were a lot of bad pitchers. Not only was Means the only one with an ERA under 5, but Means and Bruce Zimmermann were the only ones with an ERA under 6.
Think of Lyles as the replacement for Matt Harvey, except without the “Six years ago, this guy was really good” aspect. Harvey had a 6.27 ERA in 127.2 innings over 28 starts. It’s not very exciting to replace a guy with a 6.27 ERA with a guy with a 5.15 ERA, but it’s better than if the replacement ends up being more pitchers in the Spenser Watkins/Thomas Eshelman tier of player.
Ideally, this would also help ward off having to have someone like Keegan Akin or Dean Kremer doing the back-and-forth Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle, and avoid pressure to call up someone like Kyle Bradish or Kevin Smith before the team thinks they’re totally ready.
If Lyles stinks less than expected, or perhaps even exactly as much as expected, the Orioles even have the option to keep him around for the 2023 season. Rosenthal reported that the contract is structured as a $5.5 million salary for 2022, with a $500,000 signing bonus. There is a club option for 2023 at $11.5 million, with a $1 million buyout of the option. If traded midseason, Lyles receives an additional $500,000. This is the biggest free agent contract given out by the Elias-era Orioles, which is also kind of sad.
This will not be the first time Lyles has been around pitching for a rebuilding team Elias was involved with. Lyles was one of the prospects inherited when Jeff Luhnow and company, including then-assistant Elias, took over the Astros front office after the 2011 season.
The last time around, Lyles was a former top 100 prospect who’d struggled in his first big league season; he’d debuted at age 20 after having been an Astros late first round pick back in 2008. Lyles took lumps in three years with Houston, posting a 5.35 ERA before being traded to Colorado for future scoundrel Dexter Fowler. Hopes will not be so high for Lyles in Baltimore.