The Orioles’ 40-man roster got deeper Tuesday evening when Baltimore added a handful of its top prospects to protect them from being selected in next month’s Rule 5 draft.
But even with the likes of starting pitcher Grayson Rodriguez and shortstop Joey Ortiz in the fold, the Orioles could clearly still upgrade at both of those positions as the offseason continues. The free agency market features both premier aces and top-tier shortstops, and with Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias saying he expects the club to increase payroll and seek improvements throughout the winter, those remain target areas.
With left-hander John Means expected to miss the start of the season continuing his recovery from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, only one of the nine season-opening rotation candidates on Baltimore’s 40-man roster has pitched more than 150 innings in a professional season, with Austin Voth last eclipsing that mark in 2016 while in Triple-A. Excluding Rodriguez, baseball’s top pitching prospect who in June suffered a lat muscle strain that prevented a possible debut, each of the other eight set a career high for major league innings in 2022, led by Dean Kremer’s 125 1/3.
Each pitcher had stretches of success of varying lengths, but the group remains inexperienced overall. Even adding a talent of Rodriguez’s level leaves questions of depth and innings coverage, and although some of the top starters — notably Jacob deGrom and Carlos Rodón — might come with durability questions, they more than make up for them with talent. Those players will come with steep price points, and it might prove more in the Orioles’ interests to acquire an arbitration-eligible starter from another organization through a trade.
Regardless of the method, additions to the rotation would be helpful to Baltimore’s desires to contend. It’s unclear how far the Orioles will push Rodriguez and left-hander DL Hall, their No. 2 pitching prospect, in 2023 after neither reached 100 innings last season. The club is continuing to engage with veteran right-hander Jordan Lyles about a possible return after it rejected his $11 million contract option, and teammates praised his clubhouse leadership. A veteran presence, Lyles or otherwise, would benefit the Orioles on and off the mound.
The same could be said of Baltimore’s infield. Four of the game’s top shortstops are free agents in Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson. Correa, who Elias played a significant role in the Houston Astros drafting first overall in 2012, was also part of an equally impressive shortstop class last offseason, though Baltimore was not active in that market.
That allowed Jorge Mateo to take the job and run with it. A waiver claim who once ranked as the New York Yankees’ top prospect, Mateo got his first season of extended major league playing time and showed his defensive capabilities, winning the Fielding Bible Award as the sport’s best defensive shortstop. He also led the American League in stolen bases.
But his bat left much to be desired. Mateo raised his OPS nearly 150 points with an impressive 50-game stretch from late June to late August, but outside of it, he hit .190 with strikeouts in more than 30% of his plate appearances. His speed and glove provide value, but his offensive production shows shortstop is a spot the Orioles can upgrade.
On Tuesday, Ortiz formally joined the cast of internal alternatives. Gunnar Henderson is the sport’s top prospect and showed his acumen on the left side of the infield during an impressive major league stint. After spending his rookie season up the middle, Ramón Urías joined Brooks Robinson and Manny Machado as the only Orioles to win a Gold Glove at third base. A standout defender who took off offensively midseason, Ortiz performed well in a month at Triple-A to close 2022. Jordan Westburg, not yet on the 40-man roster, was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year and should also push for the majors in 2023.
Mateo and Urías are relatively early in their careers, and Henderson, Westburg and Ortiz all possess strong potentials. But it’s hard to argue putting Henderson at third base with one of the free-agent quartet at shortstop wouldn’t be the Orioles’ most competitive left side to enter 2023, with Urías, Mateo and Terrin Vavra playing second base amid utility roles while Westburg and Ortiz take their final steps at Triple-A Norfolk. It’s also possible either of the prospects is part of a trade package, given Baltimore’s overall depth up the middle throughout the farm system.
Given that it might require a lengthy offer to sign any of the free agents, the incoming player might not spend the entirety of the agreement at shortstop. But the organization preaches versatility, and the possibility of moving Correa to third, Turner to second or Bogaerts to designated hitter can be handled when it needs to be.
The additions of Rodriguez, Ortiz and three other prospects show Baltimore’s bright future is fast approaching. They also shouldn’t stop the Orioles from making moves that bring it even closer.