Coming off an AL East division title and an ALCS appearance, the Baltimore Orioles spent the 2015 offseason twiddling their thumbs and pointing to the 2016 offseason. The Orioles did not have many holes in their lineup, and the team’s 2016 free-agent class would be one of the most impactful in franchise history — Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Wei-Yin Chen, and Darren O’Day. The Orioles let Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis walk, and the resulting performance from a motley assortment of corner outfielders was disappointing to say the least. Now, coming off an 81-81 season that was plagued by inconsistent offense and starting pitching (inconsistent is being kind), the Orioles have the potential to be one of the more interesting teams to watch as the Hot Stove season kicks off.
The Orioles have already publicly stated that retaining home run champ Chris Davis is their number one priority. Davis, 30 on Opening Day, is represented by Scott Boras, and will not be cheap. It’s likely going to take six years and at least $120 million to keep Davis. If the right teams get in on the bidding war, the price tag for Davis could probably get as high as $150 million. His power has the potential to change an entire lineup. Should the price be driven all the way up to $150 million, it’s hard to see the Orioles keeping Davis. Losing Davis could send the Orioles in one of two directions.
The Orioles are unlikely to re-sign Chen. The left-hander has provided a solid return on an initial $16 million investment. Coming off the best season of his career, Chen is set to earn that same $16 million per season, for at least the next four years. Do not expect the Orioles to be willing to commit that type of capital to a pitcher with durability concerns going into his mid-thirties. Chen is homer-prone, and has endured an annual post-All-Star break decline in each of his four seasons in Baltimore.
Wieters, coming off Tommy John, is also likely to be headed out the door. The former top pick never quite lived up to expectations. Wieters never blossomed into the .300-hitter with 25-30 home runs, but his time in Baltimore was still a success. Wieters did not get back to catching on an everyday basis this year, there are questions about his ability to handle a pitching staff, call pitches, and frame pitches to get calls. The elbow is another red flag. Caleb Joseph is capable of nearly replicating the production of Wieters with the bat at a fraction of the cost, but with better defense.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s now three free agents with qualifying offers attached to them that the Orioles are very likely to lose. It’s probably 50-50 as far as keeping Davis goes. Having seen the workings of Dan Duquette over the past few years, a glass-half-empty view of Davis seems most reasonable. Boras will get Davis the best possible contract, and that’s unlikely to be in Baltimore.
With three draft picks coming their way, the Orioles can do one of two things. Baltimore can sit on those three picks and attempt to draft college players who will be ready for The Show in under a year, a la Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto, Trea Turner, and Aaron Nola. Given the Orioles recent history of drafting under the Duquette regime, that may not get the fanbase wildly excited.
Having those possible draft picks in their back pocket, as well as the potential resolution of the court battle with the Washington Nationals over television revenue, could give the Orioles a lot of freedom to spend on the open market. The Orioles have already made it clear they are willing to spend at least $20 million per year on one player — Davis. If Davis leaves, how will the Orioles look if they choose to just sit on that money. The money the Orioles had budgeted for Davis needs to be spent elsewhere, and there are plenty of free-agent options.
Alex Gordon is a name that would instantly excite, given the dismal performance of the outfield last year. Gordon would provide the Orioles with the same type of production as pre-power outage Nick Markakis. The problem with Gordon is that most big market teams in the league will be hard after Gordon’s services. If the Orioles cannot win a bidding war for Davis, it’s unlikely they will win one for Gordon.
A more realistic top-tier outfield name for the Orioles to consider is Justin Upton. The Orioles kicked the tires on a trade for Upton at the deadline, but without healthy prospects, that trade was going nowhere fast. Upton is a Virgina native, so a return to the East Coast after one year in San Diego could be desirable. Camden Yards would also be beneficial for Upton. No team has yet been able to fully harness Upton’s obvious 40-homer potential. The Orioles were the team to turn Davis from a potential bust into the best home run hitter in the league. Upton should take note of the transformation of Davis with the Orioles.
An interesting name for the Orioles to consider even if Davis stays around, is Ben Zobrist. Coming off a strong performance in the playoffs, Zobrist’s value will never be higher, but at his age, he’s still unlikely to warrant more than a four-year deal. That should be something the Orioles can commit to. Only problem is, Zobrist will likely draw a lot of attention from the New York Yankees, given their second base and outfield issues. The Orioles have similar issues, given the health concerns of J.J. Hardy over the past two years. Denard Span could provide many of the same things Zobrist would bring to the table, and his market could be more limited due to his injury struggles this season.
Turning the attention to the pitching market, there are several names that could be of interest to the Orioles. Brett Anderson, coming off his first healthy season in quite some time, should be high on the Orioles list. Anderson has the qualifying offer tied to him, but if the Orioles are getting a pick for using Chen, they could feel more compelled than most teams to pursue a pitcher like Anderson. Anderson could be perceived slightly as a risk by some teams due to his checkered medical file. That could put a damper on interest in the former top prospect. Baltimore has made a habit of capitalizing on market inefficiencies over the past few years, and if Anderson’s market dries up, the Orioles could be well-positioned to make a value signing. Where Chen is a left-handed flyball pitcher, Anderson is a left-handed groundball pitcher. That could play much better in the AL East.
Looking beyond the obvious outfield and starting pitching needs, the Orioles could decide to save their money and invest in long-term extensions for Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop. Machado wants to stay in Baltimore, and will be a top-ten player in the league before his arbitration eligible years run out. Coming off his first 30-plus home run season, Machado’s extension price will only get higher. The Orioles need to lock him up now. Schoop is an interesting extension candidate, but one the Orioles should consider. He’s had only a half-season of high-level productivity, but looks like the real deal. The club can still get him on a very team-friendly deal. There’s some risk involved in locking up a free-swinger like Schoop whose solid 2015 could be the result of a small sample size. Still, Schoop looks like he has the potential to hit 25-30 home runs while playing very good defense at second base. The Orioles cannot let his value soar too much before getting an extension done.
Overall, the 2015-16 offseason is shaping up to be a very interesting one for the Orioles. Chris Davis is the first domino that needs to fall before the rest of the winter can really be attacked. It’s unlikely that Davis will sign quickly, but Orioles must be prepared to move swiftly as soon as Davis makes his decision. Baltimore needs to have a plan in place for either potential Davis outcome. The Orioles are far from finished as a contending team, but they must have a successful offseason.