Among the frustrating things about this offseason for Orioles fans is that not only has the team not done much to improve their talent level heading into next season, they haven’t even been rumored to be seriously in the mix to do much. The Mike Elias-led front office is not one that feeds tidbits to the media. Recall that the big news of Adley Rutschman’s promotion broke when the team sent out a press release at 8am the day that it was happening. No news cannot be construed as no effort being made.
Elias and company certainly aren’t required to indulge fans in this way. Still, it’s fun to have something to talk about, especially when the only other Orioles thing to talk about right now is all the guys they aren’t signing. MLB Network’s Jon Morosi managed to get his hands on an O’s-related free agent rumor last night:
Longtime readers of this site know that my law of baseball rumors is this: Probably nothing will happen. Many rumors that float along don’t have a lot of truth to them, and many of the true ones aren’t that meaningful even if true. Take this one. Even if we assume it came directly from the mouth of Elias, “showing continued interest” is not much to go on. What’s interest? It’s probably not a firm, serious contract offer, because if it was that, the rumor would say something about an offer on the table.
MLB Trade Rumors observes that this makes the Orioles “the first team of the offseason known to be checking in on” Wacha. An optimistic take on that information is that the Orioles are less likely to be outbid. A pessimistic/realistic take is that this is a guy nobody else, or at least no other semi-serious contender, wants. That would give the signing strong Dan Duquette-ass free agent pitcher signing vibes. We don’t want those vibes.
Let’s dig in on Wacha, because thinking about someone the Orioles apparently might sign is still more interesting than thinking about all the guys they didn’t.
The 6’6” right-hander Wacha is now a veteran of ten MLB seasons. In that time he has been, on average, almost exactly a league-average pitcher. He’s worked out to a 4.05 ERA, which considering the parks and offensive environments he’s pitched in has summed up to a 99 ERA+ - so, okay, 1% below league average. He’s battled a number of minor maladies, starting 30+ games only twice, and hasn’t thrown at least 130 innings since 2017.
Wacha had to settle for a one-year, $7 million free agent contract with the Red Sox last year. He’d been in the doldrums for a while. His 2019 walk year with the Cardinals, who picked him in the first round in 2012, wasn’t good. He only pitched half of the already-shortened 2020 season with the Mets and wasn’t good when he pitched. In 2021, he moved to the Rays, who’ve worked magic on many pitchers lately. No magic was worked on Wacha, who had a 5.05 ERA in 29 games.
The 2022 season went much better for Wacha, at least in terms of his ERA. He made it to season’s end with a 3.32 ERA, which was good for a 3.3 bWAR. This would have made him the best starting pitcher on the team. Considering only that, there’s only one appropriate reaction: Sign him up.
Obviously, there’s much more to consider than just that. Wacha had two separate injured list trips in the 2022 season, one of which was due to shoulder inflammation that kept him out for the entire month of July. Durability is not part of his long-term track record. There is no reason to expect a full season of starts from him.
The other big thing to keep in mind is that Wacha’s 3.32 ERA was fueled by batted ball luck that was, compared to his career to date, fortunate. Wacha finished the 2022 season with a .260 BABIP allowed. Over his ten-year career, that number is .298. We should expect for 2023 that the BABIP number will trend in that direction, and with it, his ERA will probably trend more towards his 4.14 FIP as well.
A 4.14 ERA is still a respectable improvement to the Orioles fortunes relative to this year, if we assume it’s replacing the Bruce Zimmermann/Spenser Watkins starts in the rotation. And also if we assume he doesn’t suffer some other injury that will cause him to miss more significant time, as well as that he doesn’t look more like the 2019-21 Wacha.
One thing back in Wacha’s favor is that over the length of his MLB career, Wacha has been a reverse splits pitcher. That means that although he’s a righty, it’s right-handed batters who’ve done the most damage to him - like 118 points of OPS more than lefties. In 2022 alone that gap was even larger, with the righty split 163 points higher than the lefty split.
In any year before this one, that information is not of much interest to Orioles fans. Now, in the aftermath of 2022, it’s something to pay attention to. We’ve seen Walltimore in action and we know that Camden Yards is now punishing for right-handed batters. The reaction to a right-hander who struggles with righty batters is no longer, “Geez, that guy’s gonna get freakin’ wrecked.” Instead, we can think, “Hey, you know, maybe with half his starts at OPACY...”
At the outset of the offseason, I wouldn’t have had much interest in the Orioles signing Wacha except maybe if he was the second-best guy signed. The fact that the O’s already signed Kyle Gibson makes adding another “average, if most things go right” guy not terribly exciting. You could, I suppose, envision a scenario where Wacha’s injured list trip conveniently lines up with John Means’s return from Tommy John surgery.
At FanGraphs, the projected contract for Wacha was two years, $20 million. I’d much rather have seen the Orioles sign one $20 million guy than two $10 million guys. My opinion doesn’t matter very much. We’ll see if this rare O’s rumor that trickled out ends up having anything to it or if they end up not signing Wacha just like they didn’t sign all of these other guys.