As the pages of the calendar continue to turn and spring training approaches, the Baltimore Orioles do not appear to be done with their offseason spending. They are deep in talks with free-agent starter Yovani Gallardo, and a deal with outfielder Dexter Fowler could follow. Despite having spent over $200 million to retain internal free agents Chris Davis, Darren O’Day, and Matt Wieters, the Orioles have seemingly found more money to spend. Both Gallardo and Fowler have languished on the market all winter, their free-agent cases hindered by draft-pick compensation. As the price falls, the Orioles have positioned themselves to strike.
The Orioles executed a similar strategy two years ago, swooping in late for Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz. While the book is still out on Jimenez, Cruz delivered 40 home runs and helped propel the Orioles to the ALCS. The Orioles gave up two draft picks to sign Jimenez and Cruz, and would do the same to sign Gallardo and Fowler.
The Orioles entered the offseason needing to improve on a team that went 81-81 last season. That is not something they have done so far this winter. While the Orioles have retained most of their free-agent pieces, two of the most glaring flaws in last year’s team are still unaddressed. Wei-Yin Chen was the most consistent starting pitcher on one of the worst rotations in the American League last year, but he will pitch in Miami this season. Right field is still a question mark.
Without any external additions, the Orioles are arguably a worse team than the one that struggled to finish .500 last season. They are left to wait and hope that Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez rebound while continuing to hope that Kevin Gausman can develop into an ace. Expecting some combination of Nolan Reimold, Henry Urrutia, Dariel Alvarez, and Efren Navarro to produce anything more than replacement-level offense in right field is a big stretch. Reimold seems most likely of the bunch to provide consistent offensive output, but his health has always been a big question.
Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler are hardly All-Star caliber players, but both would have been snapped up well before February 12 were it not for the qualifying offer. Getting Gallardo on a three-year deal for $40 million and Fowler on a two- or three-year deal for $24-36 million qualify as massive bargains for the Orioles. Fowler will likely be seeking a two-year deal at this point so that he can try free agency again at the age of 32.
Gallardo is not an ace, and he may not even be able to match Chen’s statistics. His 3.42 ERA a year ago appears to be fueled by luck. Gallardo allowed the highest WHIP of his career and averaged under six innings per start. He has not thrown over 200 innings in a season since 2012. Gallardo has lost velocity, causing his strikeout rate to decline from 9.0 K/9 in 2012 to just 5.9 in 2015. None of his secondary offerings are great swing-and-miss pitches. Still, he somehow finds ways to get outs, and kept the ball in the park while pitching for the Texas Rangers. It’s worth noting that Gallardo went 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA in 18.2 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays last year. The holdup in getting a deal done between the Orioles and Gallardo is the dreaded opt-out clause. Gallardo wants one, and the Orioles are reluctant to give one. It’s hard to see the Orioles giving up a draft pick to sign a pitcher who could be gone after a year.
Fowler’s game is not dissimilar to Jason Heyward‘s. Consider the career slash lines — .267/.363/.418 vs. .268/.353/.431. Fowler’s numbers do get a boost from having played in Coors Field for the first six years of his career, but in a vacuum, he is not that much different from Jason Heyward. Defensively, Heyward is a much better player than Fowler, but the Orioles would be slotting Fowler in right field and not asking him to do too much. Heyward seems to be trending upward (at least that’s the hope held out by the Chicago Cubs), while Fowler is who he is at this point of his career. For a team like the Orioles, Fowler is almost a no-brainer if draft picks will be given up.
Neither Gallardo or Fowler alone make the Orioles that much better, but when combined, they may be enough to provide four more wins to a team that should still have a chance to contend in a division without much clarity. No one in the division has gotten significantly better over the offseason, save the Boston Red Sox. Outside of David Price, however, there are just as many questions in the Boston rotation. The Blue Jays have behaved like the Orioles all offseason, while the New York Yankees are a year older. The Tampa Bay Rays have the pitching to contend, but it’s hard to see them scoring enough runs to be a legitimate threat to the rest of the division. The Orioles kept their window to contend open by re-signing key internal free agents. With a chance to bring in two more players at positions of need, the Orioles cannot worry about draft picks that may not help the team until the entire core of the roster is too old to contend.
The next three years are extremely important if the Orioles are going to contend again with Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and Manny Machado. Signing Gallardo and Fowler helps to make that a more realistic possibility. As for the farm system, a paradigm shift is needed in that department as well. Two first-round picks this year are not enough to reshape a weak system. For years, the Orioles have made their picks with “signability” concerns in mind, while also showing little interest in signing top international amateurs. Jomar Reyes is currently the only player signed as an international free agent in the system who can be considered an elite prospect. The Orioles have taken big steps to continue fielding a winning team this winter, but it cannot stop at the big-league level. Losing draft picks should be the driving force to increase investment in the farm system.
The Orioles still get an “Incomplete” grade on their offseason moves. While it’s great to see key players re-signed, there are still holes that must be plugged to make the 2016 edition a contender. Of the players left on the market, Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler are the best of the best. If the Orioles find a way to bring both of them in, the offseason can be viewed as a smashing success.