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The Orioles briefly flirted with Wild Card contention in this year’s greatly expanded playoff format, but the O’s ultimately finished out the year at 25-35 with a -20 run differential. GM Mike Elias will head into his third offseason on the job still squarely in a rebuild, which should make for a pretty quiet winter in Baltimore.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.

Option Decisions

Free Agents

Baltimore’s offseason kicks off with what looks to be a relatively straightforward decision on 30-year-old shortstop Jose Iglesias’ club option. Iglesias was hampered by a quadriceps injury that limited him to 160 innings of defense, but he also posted an outrageous .373/.400/.556 slash in 150 trips to the plate. Granted, it was fueled largely by a .407 BABIP that isn’t repeatable, but Iglesias did make some gains in exit velocity and hard-hit rate as well. Assuming the quad is healthy next year, this is an affordable price tag on a singles hitter who rarely strikes out and is typically an excellent defender.

The extent to which the Orioles will be active after that is tough to gauge, but major moves shouldn’t be expected. The Orioles, under Elias, have signed just three players to Major League deals: Iglesias, Nate Karns and Kohl Stewart. Both Karns and Stewart inked split contracts that did not come with full guarantees in the big leagues.

We’re entering the third year of the Elias rebuild, but the O’s are still staring up at a powerhouse Rays club, the perennially contending Yankees, an emerging young Blue Jays team and a Red Sox club that will get some crucial names back in 2021 (Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez among them). The O’s aren’t just a couple of savvy free-agent signings away from competing against this group.

Of course, the O’s hope to get an important piece back themselves in the form of slugger Trey Mancini. The 28-year-old was Baltimore’s best hitter and arguably best all-around player in 2019, but he missed the 2020 season after revealing back in March that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Mancini underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor, but Elias said last month that the organization is hopeful he’ll be ready to rejoin the club in Spring Training. It’d be a boon for the clubhouse and lineup alike, as a Mancini return would start the season off on a feel-good note and give manager Brandon Hyde a heart-of-the-order hitter who raked at a .291/.364/.535 clip when last healthy.

Mancini would give the Orioles an option at first base, designated hitter or in either outfield corner, although he’s best-suited to play first (career -17 DRS in the outfield). That’d push Chris Davis — more on him later — to designated hitter but still leave the Orioles with some possible areas for addition around the diamond.

In 2020, the O’s relied primarily on Hanser Alberto and Rio Ruiz at second base and third base, respectively. Alberto was one of the club’s best hitters for much of the season before a disastrous final 15 games torpedoed his batting line. Ruiz, meanwhile, slugged nine homers but hit just .222 with a .286 on-base percentage. Both players look to lack ceiling at the plate; Alberto has hit for average in Baltimore but lacks power, while Ruiz has pop but minimal on-base skills.

It’s at least plausible that the Orioles would consider non-tendering Alberto — particularly given what should be a rather flooded second base market. Ruiz doesn’t seem like a sure thing to survive the winter on the 40-man roster, having given the O’s a .229/.299/.393 slash (82 wRC+) through 617 plate appearances over the past two seasons. The Orioles could give Renato Nunez another look at the hot corner, but he’s viewed as a poor defender.

Given that lackluster set of options at second and third base, it’s not particularly surprising that Elias has already spoken of a desire to bolster his infield depth. In his end-of-season chat with reporters, Elias noted a lack of infield depth in the organization when he took over, attributing it to the team’s prior aversion to signing international amateur free agents. While the GM said it’s been an area of focus since he took the reins and offered optimism that the pipeline is improving, he also called infield depth “one of those areas where everyone is always looking for more” (link  via MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko).

The Orioles aren’t going to go wild and sign a top free agent like DJ LeMahieu, but there should be some solid veterans available on more affordable deals. They’ve already been there, done that with Jonathan Villar and Jonathan Schoop — not that a reunion is impossible — but someone like Cesar Hernandez, Jedd Gyorko, or Marwin Gonzalez (whom Elias knows from his Astros days) would give them some cover.

It’s also at least worth pondering whether the Orioles will take a more significant plunge on a unique market entrant: Korean shortstop Ha-Seong Kim. The Kiwoom Heroes star will be posted for MLB clubs this winter, and he’ll play next season at just 25 years of age. Even when the O’s were inexplicably dormant on the Latin American market for international talent, they had a strong presence in both NPB and the KBO.

Bringing Kim into the mix would ostensibly align with the timeline of their rebuild, and he’s capable of playing each of shortstop, second base and third base. We’re expecting a pretty substantial contract for Kim — four to five years in length at something in the $7-9MM annual range — so it’d be a notable departure from the dearth of free-agent spending under Elias. That said, Kim’s age and versatility both match up with the Orioles’ long-term organizational needs. Signing Kim is akin to signing a Top 100 prospect who can be plugged directly onto the big league roster. Some contenders may prefer players who are proven against MLB pitching, but the Orioles could certainly withstand the risk that Kim faces a prolonged adjustment period.

Beyond the infield, the lineup should mostly be set. Ryan Mountcastle exploded onto the scene with a .333/.386/.492 showing through his first 140 MLB plate appearances. He’s locked down one corner outfield slot, with the other surely set aside for Anthony Santander, who hit .261/.315/.575 with 11 big flies, 13 doubles and a triple in 165 plate appearances. Austin Hays is the favorite in center field thanks to a .289/.344/.458 output dating back to 2019 (209 total plate appearances), and Cedric Mullins gives them a solid alternative.

Behind the plate, Chance Sisco and Pedro Severino form a respectable platoon, but they’re both placeholders for 2019 No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman. Sisco strikes out too much but draws plenty of walks and has shown some pop. Severino had a rough 43 plate appearances against lefties in 2020 but has generally handled them well in his career.

At designated hitter, the Orioles will be left to ponder what to do with the remaining portion of the aforementioned Davis and his contract. Nunez gives them another option there as well, having belted 43 homers dating back to 2019 but providing minimal defensive value at the infield corners. There’s been speculation about releasing Davis for years now, and perhaps that outcome is simply inevitable, but the O’s will likely wait to see how he looks in Spring Training and also to determine whether they’ll have Mancini available before making such a drastic move.

It’s also not a lock that Nunez will be tendered a contract. For all the power he’s shown in the past two seasons, his overall .247/.314/.469 slash translates to a 104 wRC+ and 106 OPS+ due to his questionable on-base skills and the leaguewide home run boom. Paired with his defensive shortcomings, Nunez has been worth less than one WAR per both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference in 2019-20 combined.

On the pitching side of the equation, the Orioles have vacancies in both the rotation and bullpen, which should allow them to be opportunistic in signing some veteran free agents. They seemed to prioritize price over upside last winter when bringing in Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc on non-guaranteed deals, but it’s possible they’ll be able to get some arms with higher ceilings to concede to minor league pacts or low-base, incentive-laden one-year deals this time around. There’s something to be said for leaving the door open for in-house options to seize opportunities, but there are so many holes on this pitching staff that it’d be surprising if the front office didn’t bring in some fresh faces.

A potential trade involving Cobb would create another opening and also serve to pare back the payroll. No one is going to take Cobb’s entire $15MM salary, but he did bounce back from an injury-ruined 2019 season to make 10 starts of 4.30 ERA ball in 2020. Cobb looks mostly like an innings-eating fourth/fifth starter at this point, so there won’t be a long line to acquire him, but if the O’s were to absorb 75 percent of his salary or take on another undesirable contract in return, perhaps something could be worked out. At the very least, Cobb’s healthy showing and respectable results moved him off the borderline-untradeable status he held this time last year.

Overall, the Orioles simply aren’t in a position to spend much money or part with young players to add veteran upgrades to their roster. A player like Kim or a younger non-tender who still has some prime years and team control remaining would make sense as an upside play. One-year deals and minor league pacts for veterans with a bit of name value are likely on the docket, but the O’s lack both obvious trade candidates on the big league roster and motivation to make splashy moves for veteran players. The 2021 season will likely be another year dedicated to shaping a sustainable core of players with an eye toward better results in 2022-23.

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