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Orioles free agent target: Ross Stripling

The swingman could provide Baltimore significant starting pitching depth behind a rotation not expected to work deep into games.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles’ search for starting pitching has been well documented this offseason. Well, the potential candidates have been documented. The Orioles have taken a tight-lipped approach to free agency, and that’s okay. Baltimore pays Mike Elias to assemble a winning group for the actual season, not to entertain fans around the holidays.

The Orioles could improve the rotation via free agency or a potential trade, but one thing remains clear—Baltimore has room for more than one new starting pitcher.

Ross Stripling ranks outside the top 20 available free agents this season. He’s not Justin Verlander or Jacob deGrom, and he falls below pitchers like Nathan Eovaldi and Jameson Taillon. Still, Stripling can help the Orioles in 2023.

Stripling posted a 3.01 ERA and 1.020 WHIP in 134.1 innings last season. His 3.11 FIP, 20.7 strikeout percentage, and 3.7 percent walk rate led to a 3.1 WAR from FanGraphs. His accomplishments are inflated by the fact that he posted the numbers in the AL East.

Stripling started 24 games for Toronto last season and made eight additional appearances in relief. He limited Baltimore to just one hit in 6.1 scoreless innings on August 17. The righty struck out seven and did not walk a batter in the victory.

Stripling succeeded with a low-90s fastball and a 43.8 percent ground ball rate. The 33-year-old pitched well enough to generate some buzz around a potential qualifying offer, but Toronto eventually declined. Baltimore can sign Stripling without surrendering draft pick compensation.

Stripling delivered his most complete season since posting an 8-6 record and 3.02 ERA for the Dodgers in 2018. The righty scuffled through 2021 with a 4.80 ERA and 5.21 FIP in 19 starts for the Jays.

Stripling lowered his HR/9 from 2.04 in 2021 to 0.80 last season. His ground ball percentage increased from 35.5 to 43.8, and the BB/9 fell from 2.66 to 1.34. Surprisingly, his K/9 dropped from 8.35 to 7.44. The 3.1 WAR from FanGraphs marked a career high.

The veteran is likely due for some regression after a career year, but his impressive numbers leave room for potential drop off. Stripling, a first-time free agent, appears poised to receive an average annual value of ~$10 million for 2-3 years.

Stripling would immediately slot into Baltimore’s rotation, but his swingman track record makes him a strong fit for the Orioles next season. Grayson Rodriguez will likely be pitching with some form of a work limit. The same goes for DL Hall if the Birds use him as a starter. John Means will miss an undisclosed amount of time while recovering from Tommy John and could easily face a pitch count once healthy.

Stripling could start for the duration of the season or work in long relief behind a rotation not expected to pitch deep into games. Either way, he represents a known commodity and a major-league caliber pitcher. Spenser Watkins, Bruce Zimmermann or Keegan Akin could fill that role, but they will all begin 2023 with a question mark following their name. The Orioles have moved beyond banking on “bouncebacks” or Four-A players “putting it all together” during a playoff push.

A two-year deal feels like the most likely outcome. Stripling could wait for the market to settle, or a team could snatch him up with an extra million or two today. His strong performance in the AL East should serve as a motivator for Baltimore. Stripling pitched to a 2.72 ERA in 49.2 innings against Boston, New York and Tampa Bay last season.

Stripling’s fastball doesn’t blow anyone away, and the Orioles signing him wouldn’t either. It would represent a low-risk move that should pay off during a 162-game season, though. The Orioles could easily pair Stripling with another starter to bolster their rotation for 2023 and bump the righty to the bullpen if other starters justify the move.