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Orioles free agent target: Jacob deGrom

Likely? No. Impossible? Not necessarily. Let’s imagine, even if just for the heck of it, what a deGrom-led Orioles starting rotation would look like.

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MLB: Wild Card-San Diego Padres at New York Mets
The deGrominator, switching out the Orange and Blue for Orange and Black?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With Mike Elias having proclaimed “liftoff” for the Orioles, Camden Chat writers are hoping for some impactful free agent additions to the roster. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking through possible signings - some more realistic than others.

In this, the fourth installment of “Orioles Hot Stove 2022: Go Big or Go Home,” let’s talk Jacob deGrom. The best pitcher in the game? Best of the last decade? It’s arguable. An impossible get for Baltimore? Maybe. But then again… why not deGrom?

Well, let’s start with why not.

One, as one of the best pitchers of his generation, the two-time Cy Young Award winner and four-time All Star won’t come cheap. Spotrac estimates his yearly value at $45 million. The Orioles have never spent more than $12 million or so on a pitcher.

Two, there are plenty of clubs hungry for starting pitching and willing to pony up for it. The Mets, who lost in the Wild Card Series, now face the loss in free agency of not just deGrom, but also Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker. The Yankees and the Dodgers will be hungry, too, and super-agent Scott Boras predicts this will be a “carnivore’s market.” (Please ignore the massive conflict of interest in this statement.)

Three, superstar pitchers just don’t come to Baltimore. The O’s haven’t exactly been a perpetual contender in the last half-decade, they’re not a big-market team, they play (you may have heard) in the AL East, and their park is notoriously hitter friendly.

Well, about that. GM Mike Elias & Co.’s decision to push the left-field wall back 26 ½ feet and raise it seven may have felt a little cheesy back when they announced it in January 2022. Slugger Aaron Judge blasted Camden Yards’ new dimensions as a “travesty.” (Again, please ignore the massive conflict of interest in this statement.)

But while right-handed hitters may hate Walltimore, it’s made Oriole Park at Camden Yards a much more attractive place to be a pitcher. ESPN ranked the stadium the MLB’s single most homer-friendly in 2021, but 25th of 30 in 2022. “It’s not a secret,” said Mike Elias back in January 2022, that “part of having a winning program is the ability to recruit free agent pitchers, and that has been a historical challenge for this franchise. There’s just no way around that.”

One great way to show that Walltimore’s costs, financial and/or aesthetic, were worth it would be to make a big splash signing for a true ace. It would be a great way to prove that, just like season after season of losing, Baltimore’s reputation as a dead-end for pitchers is in the past.

So, then, why deGrom?

It’s not hard to see what the Orioles would gain. As the team enters “liftoff” and teeters on the verge of contention, starting pitching remains its area of greatest need. Mark Brown pointed out that the rotation, while much improved, still finished one of the bottom ten in ERA. O’s starters’ collective 7.2 fWAR was better than Washington’s MLB-worst -1.1, but significantly worse than Houston’s MLB-best 19.4. What is an Orioles team with approximately 12 more wins? A playoff team.

Visualizing a 2023 rotation likely made up of John Means (who could return midseason from Tommy John surgery), Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish, and Grayson Rodriguez, it’s clear that this group lacks experience, if not potential. With the team declining to pick up Jordan Lyles’ $11 million option, Means is what passes for a veteran in these parts, and he only has 65 career starts under his belt. A free agent signing who combines splashiness with experience (at age 34, deGrom is a nine-year veteran) would be the best of all worlds for Baltimore. Add a game-changing fastball, and it doesn’t sound bad.

The single factor that could bring this deal into the realm of possibility, however, is also a reason it will probably never take place: deGrom’s injury history.

The righty missed multiple months in 2022 with a stress fracture in his right scapula, and he suffered forearm problems down the stretch in 2021. As a result, he’s made just 26 starts in the last two seasons. The Athletic points out that multiple injuries are more concerning than garden-variety Tommy John surgery, meaning there may be a ceiling on any deal teams are willing to ink with him. That publication’s prediction is a four-year deal worth $148 million total, and they expect any deal to feature “a creative structure — with early opt-outs or vesting options.” Fangraphs goes a little lower, predicting $120 million over three years.

Neither of these contracts is so eye-wateringly generous that it automatically excludes the Orioles from contention. But dropping that much money on a pitcher, however brilliant, with durability concerns—especially when it’s your team’s “first splashy ace signing” in years? Not a good look.

So while delightful and delicious to think about, I think this deal is better left in the realm of fantasy. There are plenty of pitchers out there—guys like Nathan Eovaldi, José Quintana or Chris Bassitt—who fall somewhere closer to the virtuous middle between “veteran who eats innings and posts an ERA of 5.00” and “brilliant ace whose contract could change the franchise but also blow up in your face.” We’ll explore those pitchers in future posts in this series, and—just my opinion—the Orioles probably should, too.