Five questions for next season
Status of Trumbo, Wieters, rotation must be resolved
After the Orioles’ heartbreaking season-ending loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League wild-card game, players knew they’d likely played their final game together as a group.
The focus now turns to next season. While most of the team’s core players will remain, the Orioles could look remarkably different in 2017.
Here’s a look at five burning questions the Orioles face heading into the offseason: Have we seen Matt Wieters’ final game in an Orioles uniform? After accepting the team’s $15.8 million qualifying offer last offseason, Wieters is a free agent again. Provided the current qualifying-offer
process remains — it will be a topic of discussion in collective bargaining — the Orioles could make Wieters another qualifying offer, this time at a cost of $16.7 million. But that’s a lot to pay a catcher who hit .243/.302/.409 even though Wieters’ value to the Orioles goes beyond numbers. He’s one of the team’s longest-tenured players, he’s an unquestioned clubhouse leader and he has a penchant for clutch hits — one only need to look to his two-homer game in the Orioles’ regular-season finale win at Yankee Stadium as proof. So he would be difficult to replace.
Wieters could be the top catcher on the free-agent market this offseason, especially with Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos having torn his right ACL in September.
Backup Caleb Joseph, who has played well in Wieters’ absence in the past, regressed offensively this season, failing to drive in a run in 141 plate appearances. Instead of paying Wieters, the team could look for a free-agent place-holder — a reunion with former Orioles catcher Nick Hundley could be an option — until top catching prospect Chance Sisco, the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year this season, is ready to take over full time. Will the Orioles try to retain home run king Mark Trumbo? The Orioles will likely make the qualifying offer in an effort to gain a compensatory draft pick if he departs. But after a career year in which he led the majors with 47 homers, there’s little doubt that Trumbo will test the free-agent market. Trumbo has been consistent in saying how much he enjoyed his brief time in Baltimore, where he meshed well in the clubhouse and wasable to play in the postseason for the first time in his major league career. But two years ago, after Nelson Cruz led the majors in homers during his one-year stint with the Orioles before hitting free agency, he signed a four-year, $57 million deal with the Seattle Mariners. Trumbo will hit free agency four years younger than Cruz was, so a comparable deal — if not a larger one — isn’t out of the question. In the offseason, everyone’s looking for a slugger. Matt Wieters, with Buck Showalter, is more valuable than this year’s numbers suggest.
Whether the Orioles push to keep Trumbo remains to be seen, but considering the money the club invested last offseason in long-term deals with Chris Davis (seven years, $161 million) and Darren O’Day (four years, $31 million), giving another long-term deal to a player like Trumbo seems unlikely.
Keep in mind that the Orioles acquired Trumbo in a deal with the Mariners for backup catcher Steve Clevenger. Two years ago, they signed Cruz for a mere $8 million, so look for executive vice president Dan Duquette to again scour the market for opportunities to acquire high-value power hitters for a third slugger success story. Howwill the Orioles continue to improve their on-base capabilities? Lost in manager Buck Showalter’s choice to leave closer Zach Britton unused in Tuesday’s wild-card loss was the fact the Orioles offense did an all-too-familiar disappearing act down the stretch. The Orioles were hitless in their final 51⁄ innings Tuesday, their last hit coming with two outs in the sixth on a single by Manny Machado.
The cause of the Orioles’ demise in each of their three postseason trips over the past five years has been their powerful lineup going cold. We’ve seen the same script play out often over the years, and while the Orioles led the majors with 253 homers this season, their inability to manufacture runs when the ball wasn’t going out was glaring.
The Orioles have embraced their identity as a home-run-hitting team, but at this point there’s debate whether they have to put together more of a balanced offense. Hyun Soo Kim was a valuable on-base weapon and August trade addition Michael Bourn, a pending free agent, gave the Orioles a boost with his ability to draw walks and steal bases. Look for Duquette to make improving the team’s on-base capabilities a top priority. Will the team attempt to lock up any cornerstone players (or management) to extensions? This Orioles core has a two-year window for winning, because after the 2018 season Adam Jones, Machado and Zach Britton become free agents. That’s also when the contracts of Duquette and Showalter end.
The Orioles could lose key pieces before then. Next season will be Chris Tillman’s last before free agency. So, if the Orioles are committed to locking up some of these players long term, now is the time to start pursuing extension talks.
There has been no traction in extending Machado, who would become a free agent at the age of 26 and would hit the market with Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper to make it the most robust class in recent memory.
Britton made $6.75 million this past season in his second of four arbitrationeligible years, and will get a hefty raise after a year when he will draw Cy Young Award consideration. So, by the time he reaches his final year of arbitration in 2018, the cost of keeping Britton could be too large. Remember when the Orioles traded closer Jim Johnson because he was projected to make around $10 million?
Also, as second baseman Jonathan Schoop reaches arbitration eligibility this offseason, the Orioles could look to buy out some of his arbitration years as part of a long-term deal, a move that might help their attempts to keep Machado. Do the Orioles already have all of next year’s rotation members? The Orioles will head into the offseason with a strong front-line trio of starters: Tillman, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. Veterans Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley round out the starting rotation candidates, and all three are on guaranteed contracts in 2017.
Having six starters was beneficial at times because it allowed them to get extra rest down the stretch this season, but the routine disruptions some faced were a challenge. The rotation had its moments, but overall, the Orioles starters’ 4.72 ERA ranked 13th out of 15 American League clubs.
The Orioles are committed to paying Jimenez, Gallardo and Miley a combined $33.5 million in 2017. Can they go into the spring locked into doling out that kind of cash to those three veterans knowing that only two would make the starting rotation? Or could one be used as trade fodder?
Still, you’re always looking to upgrade pitching in the offseason. But this year’s starting pitching market is thin, with names such as Rich Hill, Jeremy Hellickson and Ivan Nova topping an unspectacular list.
Outfielder Mark Trumbo, who led the majors in home runs with 47 in his first season with the Orioles, is almost certain to test the freeagent market. Trumbo meshed well in the clubhouse and has said he’d like to return, but the demand for his services is likely to be high.