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The case for the Orioles acquiring Dylan Cease

He’s due for a bounceback year, and Baltimore is due for proving itself a serious destination for pitching.

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San Diego Padres v Chicago White Sox Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

You read this blog (check), and you haven’t been living under a rock (check), so you’ll know that, in the quest to build on their breakout 101-win season in 2023, one area that the Baltimore Orioles are probably going to need to shore up is the starting rotation.

In early December, the O’s crossed one big-ticket item off their wishlist, signing veteran closer Craig Kimbrel to a one-year deal to replace Félix Bautista, out for 2024 after Tommy John surgery. But they remain in the market for a starter, preferably a top-of-the-rotation one who won’t break the piggy bank. About that...

Thus far, the Orioles have stood pat while big-spending teams hand out generous contracts ranging from Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s 12 years and $325 million to the recent signing by the Reds of Frankie Montas for one year and $16 million. As CC’s Paul Folkemer pointed out, if Montas pitched just one game in 2023, and is still getting $16 million, it’d be quite a U-turn for the Orioles—whose biggest single-season contract under GM Mike Elias has been $10 million to Kyle Gibson—to make a splashy free-agent signing of the likes of Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell.

But unlike the free agent market, trading for a starting pitcher would play to the Orioles’ organizational strengths. With the No. 1 farm system for three years running, they’re rich in prospects, and their top four infielders (Jackson Holliday, Coby Mayo, Joey Ortiz, Connor Norby), best two outfielders (Colton Cowser, Heston Kjerstad) and top four pitchers (DL Hall, Cade Povich, Chayce McDermott, Justin Armbruester) all ended the season in the majors or in Triple-A, which gives them added trade value.

We know Mike Elias isn’t looking to “jettison players,” and he’s never been one to be strong-armed into a deal he thinks is bad for the club long-term, but an ace for the right price?

Having finished the season 61-101 and cleaned house since then, the Chicago White Sox are ideal dance partners for the Orioles. This is one reason to take seriously the rumors that have trickled out in the first week of this new year, coming from several sources, linking the Orioles to the right hander Dylan Cease.

Is this a good thing? I think it could be. Let me get to that in a second.

One more reason to take the rumors seriously is that the White Sox’s asking price for Cease, who comes with two years of team control, has been more or less known since mid-December, when the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the White Sox were demanding a king’s ransom for the right hander—basically, three of the Reds’ top 10 prospects. But if the Orioles are now the frontrunners in the Cease sweepstakes, it’s fair to assume that the gap between the two sides has narrowed.

Besides, with the Reds having since gone on to acquire Frankie Montas, the Diamondbacks Eduardo Rodriguez, the Braves Chris Sale, the Red Sox Lucas Giolito and the Cardinals a lot of people, Chicago’s list of dance partners is getting short. They might be in the mood to negotiate in earnest now.

A final reason to take the rumors seriously is that Cease’s downer of a 2023 season looks less like an omen and more of an outlier. Let’s discuss.

Cease’s best season came in 2022 when he went 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 227 strikeouts in 184 innings across 32 starts. He finished second in the Cy Young Award voting and would have won if Justin Verlander weren’t off pulling superhuman things at age 39.

Cease had a down year in 2023, though. He went 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA, 1.42 WHIP and 214 strikeouts in 177 innings across 33 starts.

What was the difference? I highly recommend this read from Luke Smailes at our counterpart site, South Side Sox, who did a deep dig into what turned Cease from “ace” to “mere mortal” in 2023. Among the important differences, he observed that Cease’s BABIP shot up from .260 in 2022 to .330 in 2023, the highest jump among qualified starting pitchers. With a .311 xwOBA (37th-best in the league) and Chicago fielders ranked 29th in Defensive Runs Saved, bad luck certainly seemed involved. On the other hand, Cease’s Hard Hit% rose from 31.2% to 41.5%, putting him in the bottom third of the league, suggesting a problem of pitch quality.

According to Luke, the factors were several.

  • Pitch Mix. Cease “threw his slider — the pitch that was literally the single best pitch in baseball in 2022 by Run Value — less frequently in 2023.” He opted for more fastballs, instead. (Odd. And something O’s pitching coaches could and would want to work with.)
  • Stuff. Despite maintaining an elite Whiff rate against the slider (43.3%), its quality was down, with less horizontal and vertical break, and the fastball velocity was down to 95.6 mph from 97.1. In fact, all four of Cease’s pitch types were worse in 2023, owing to “velo drop and bad shape change.”
  • Release Point. Luke writes, “[A] glaring detail of Cease’s 2023 season is that his release extension was up two to three inches across the board. He was getting down the mound significantly more,” indicating some “lower-half mechanical issues that he’ll look to clean up prior to 2024.”

The author points out that these issues are easier to clean up than improving the shape of your pitches or adding spin to your fastball. Cease has no problems in these areas, as you can see:

There’s a few other things that are nice about the 28-year-old Cease other than the shape of his pitches. He’s under contract for another two seasons. He hasn’t had a serious ailment since he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 (as a high school senior!). He’s a workhorse, having started 32 or 33 games in each of the past three seasons. And he has a higher ceiling than Miami’s Jesús Luzardo or Edward Cabrera, with whom Baltimore has also been linked.

A key question remains, though: At what price? Here are two of the proposed packages found on the internet in the last few days:

Chicago White Sox Receive: 3B Coby Mayo (MLB Pipeline’s #4 Orioles Prospect), SS Joey Ortiz (#6), OF Dylan Beavers (#9)

Chicago White Sox Receive: OF Heston Kjerstad (#3), C/1B Samuel Basallo (#5), 2B/OF Connor Norby (#7).

Me, I see Mayo and Basallo on these lists and I go, Get outta town. But Joey Ortiz and Norby might be served by a change of scenery.

Anyhow, there’s still plenty of time for Elias to make a move before pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota in mid-February. With Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson hitting their stride and Holliday on the cusp of an exciting arrival, this Orioles team isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel. But if they could add a player closer to the 2022 Cease than the 2023 Cease to their starting rotation, that would be a big boost.

Cease could do a lot for this team, adding experience, the ability to eat innings, strikeout stuff, an ace ceiling, depth, and above all, a signal to the baseball world that the Orioles are going to continue to compete. “We’re now in a mode where we’re adding Major League players rather than subtracting them, so I continue to see all this growing,” Elias said at the GM Meetings in early November.

We’re waiting to see it.