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 couple of weeks, we’ll be looking through possible signings - some more realistic than others.
A lot of things went right for the Orioles along the way to their surprising 83-79 finish. A number of things didn’t quite go right enough for them to make it all the way into a wild card spot in the American League. With a team batting average of .236 and OBP of .305 each falling below the average AL team, they just didn’t hit or get on base enough to consistently produce runs.
The offseason is a time where we can hope that the team addresses this deficiency. One player who figures to end up under the microscope because he has a career track record of hitting and getting on base and doesn’t figure to cost a lot of money is 35-year-old outfielder Michael Brantley, who is fresh off a four-year tenure with the Houston Astros where he batted a combined .306/.368/.464.
One of the constants early on is that the O’s are rumored to be interested in “left-handed hitting corner outfielders.” Brantley is in that group. Well, sort of.
With a player who’s towards the end of his career, a multi-year track record can be deceiving if his performance has tailed off lately. That’s not the case with Brantley, whose 2022 batting line was .288/.370/.416. That’s a hefty on-base percentage. The only Orioles who even topped .320 over at least 81 games this season were Adley Rutschman and Trey Mancini. As a lefty batter, he also offers some balance the lineup lacked this season.
Oh yeah, and he doesn’t strike out! Over his career, Brantley has struck out in 10.7% of plate appearances. That’s a unique quality for a player today. This is not something that’s getting worse lately either. He walked more times than he struck out in 2022. Again, this is a skill the Orioles just didn’t have among their regulars this season.
All of that is the used car salesman pitch. Nothing was untrue or even exaggerated. It also wasn’t exactly the whole truth for trying to figure out what he might offer to a team in 2023. For starters, Brantley only played in 64 games this year because his season was cut short when he landed on the injured list at the end of June due to needing arthroscopic surgery on the labrum in his shoulder. That could be sitting there waiting to be the next time “the Orioles physical” makes an appearance to torpedo a signing.
Even if we zip right past the injury history with the shoulder, there’s also the fact that Brantley is going to turn 36 next year and he doesn’t have the speed that he once had in his 20s when he was playing for Cleveland. Brantley was in the 10th percentile for sprint speed among all players in 2022, which is probably why in Houston he was more often the designated hitter than the left fielder.
That’s saying something when the Astros roster also had Yordan Alvarez, who’s got that “this guy should only be a DH” quality at a decade younger than Brantley. With the Orioles already having a couple of corner outfielders in Austin Hays and Anthony Santander where their defense is suspect by at least one publicly available metric - each is in the bottom 15% of players on Statcast’s Outs Above Average - that makes it more of a challenge to squeeze Brantley in there.
You can’t put a 36-year-old guy out in front of Walltimore. And let’s not forget that Rutschman being the designated hitter when he’s not catching was also part of the 2022 Orioles success story.
Brantley brings something that the offense didn’t have this year, with both a high batting average and OBP. What the Orioles will have to figure out is whether squeezing that in to their existing roster picture is worth it at the price Brantley is set to get. Aside from Hays and Santander, it also seems to be time to evaluate Kyle Stowers at the big league level, and if things go well, Colton Cowser could arrive before season’s end.
At MLB Trade Rumors, the projection is that Brantley will get a $15 million deal for 2023. FanGraphs predicted less but still a lot: $10 million for one year. The Orioles are in a position where they don’t have to worry about the money for 2023 too much. If they whiff and there’s no money on the books for 2024 and beyond, the only downside is if there’s poor performance.
It’s going to be a problem for Mike Elias to figure out how to fit improvement onto the roster, and for Brandon Hyde to decide how to dole out the playing time. An outfielder could be traded, with the team believing it’s selling high on that player. An outfield prospect could be included in a trade to shore up the pitching staff. Either Hays or Santander could be injured; they’ve missed time before.
Or the Orioles could give Brantley - or Santander - the Moneyball talk about first base (“It’s not hard. Tell him, Wash.” “It’s incredibly hard” and then you still make him play first.) I don’t know. It’s a tough sell with the current roster mix, even if the price is right. The 2023 Orioles could use what Brantley has done in his career at the plate. Maybe they will find a way to make that happen, or maybe they will look for a different veteran lefty batter with a bit more plausible defensive versatility.