Five ques­tions for next sea­son

Sta­tus of Trumbo, Wi­eters, ro­ta­tion must be re­solved

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Ed­uardo A. Encina

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.

TOM SZCZERBOWSKI/GETTY IM­AGES

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.

KARL MERTON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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