With just more than a month until spring training, the Orioles remain without a marquee move this offseason. The Mike Elias-led front office has preferred to instead make incremental improvements at several spots on the roster, leaving most of the heavy lifting to players who were already in the organization.
That has made for a disappointing couple of months for a fanbase that had hoped significant reinforcements were coming to support the upstart O’s. After all, this is a team that came out of nowhere to win 83 games and finish just three games out of a playoff spot in 2022. They have a talented young core and almost no payroll committed beyond the upcoming season. It felt like a prime opportunity to invest externally. But the folks in the warehouse have seemingly had different ideas.
Time will tell if this is a wise strategy or not. Slight improvements at second base, backup catcher, and pitching depth, along with growth from the duo of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, plus key debuts of Grayson Rodriguez and Colton Cowser could be all this team needs to sneak into its first playoff berth since 2016.
And it should be said that there is still time for a trade of some significant to come together before pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota. Adding an arm like Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes would make this winter feel much different than it does right now. For now, though, we can give Elias and his crew an “incomplete” grade for their work. That includes how they have handled their own players.
Sadly, there has not been so much as an inkling that the Orioles are kicking around the idea of extending any of the key members of their big league squad. That doesn’t mean conversations haven’t taken place. This Orioles front office is notoriously tight-lipped. But if there was any good news to share you would assume we would have gotten a whiff of it. Alas, it’s crickets.
It has become commonplace in recent years for organizations to identify franchise cornerstones early on in their careers and work to keep them under contract for as long as possible. The Mariners gave Julio Rodríguez a massive 14-year contract last summer, the Atlanta Braves have made signing their players to big deals into an annual tradition, and in late-2021 the Rays—a pioneer in this space—inked Wander Franco to a 12-year deal.
The Orioles have several candidates for such an extension that stand out. Chief among them is Rutschman. He was a can’t miss prospect that Elias made his first draft pick as a GM. Since then, he has met—and often exceeded—expectations prior to a big league debut last year that saw him finish second in Rookie of the Year voting and 12th in MVP voting and immediately become one of the game’s premier backstops. His value to the organization is unquestionable.
If not Rutschman, perhaps due to worries about the wear and tear of the position, then why not Henderson? Still just 21 years old, the Alabama native has already spent a month in the big leagues, looking quite impressive in the process. His physical tools are off the charts, and his best years should be ahead of him. Even if the concerns about him outgrowing the shortstop position are founded, he seems plenty capable of sliding to third base or elsewhere on the diamond.
A name that isn’t mentioned enough in extension discussions is Cedric Mullins. The center fielder is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason. Since the Orioles have already tendered him a contract for 2023, one would imagine discussions with his camp are ongoing. They could easily morph into a longer term view of the team-player relationship.
Mullins’ early-career struggles are well documented. But since the start of the 2020 season, he is one of the best at his position in all of baseball. He possess a 118 wRC+ in that time. Not to mention his top-level defense and ability to swipe a base. Assuming Cowser is a corner outfielder long term, the organization is without an heir apparent in center. It could make sense to lock up a steady option like Mullins and consider the position covered for the next half-decade.
Although the Braves are proving otherwise, it is often difficult for an organization to retain every one of its premier homegrown players. Heck, even Atlanta has seen Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson leave. One would imagine the Orioles are not immune, so they will have to pick and choose, especially if this generation of prospects proves as good as everyone expects. And of course it takes two to tango. If a player prefers to eventually test free agency, or simply wishes to play elsewhere, that is entirely fair as well.
However, there is something to be said about building a culture and environment that entices players to stick around. That comes with winning, yes, but it also comes with rewarding players for the work they have already put in, and the production they have already provided. There is inherent risk involved in an organization dishing out money before they, technically, “have to.” But there is also risk for the player as well in signing what is likely an under-market value deal.
For an Orioles team that appears to be on the precipice of an exciting era of baseball, that is a risk worth taking. And reaching a long-term deal with just one of their franchise cornerstones would serve to completely shift the perception of this offseason from disappointing to inspiring, an indication that the team and the fans are on the same page.