Trey Mancini’s Houston Astros have defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, and the most significant offseason of the Orioles’ rebuild is underway.
After a 2022 campaign that unexpectedly produced Baltimore’s first winning season in six years, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has promised an increase in payroll and effort to contend that wasn’t seen in his first four years leading the organization.
An offseason that could determine the Orioles’ ability to push for the American League East title and beyond is beginning, and they enter it facing questions on, off and about the field. Here are five of them.
What does ‘liftoff’ look like?
In the aftermath of a trade deadline that hurt the Orioles’ playoff chances more than it helped them — with trading Mancini, then the team’s longest-tenured player, to Houston among the moves made — Elias declared “it’s liftoff from here” for Baltimore’s rebuild. The three months since have been a countdown to launch.
With the World Series concluding, the Orioles are going to be wholly able to upgrade their roster through free agency and trades. They’ll have several internal moves to make that could also inch up payroll, but none figure to have as significant an influence as whatever happens externally.
Beyond saying “significant investments” are coming, Elias has been mum on how much of a rise in payroll should be expected; notifying players’ agents and opposing teams of a self-established cap would do little good for the Orioles’ negotiating position. But increasing the Orioles’ 2022 payroll by 50% would have taken it from 29th in the league, according to Spotrac, to 27th. Doubling it would have still left it in the bottom 10. Add $100 million, and it still would have been below league average.
The Orioles are cleared for takeoff. How high they rise will now be determined.
When will they commit to Baltimore?
Asked whether Camden Yards’ new left field wall would remain in its current format in 2023, Elias said it would but noted the entirety of the ballpark’s outfield dimensions could change in the future as a result of other renovations the team has in mind for the 30-year-old venue.
That’s a sign of long-term planning, even without a long-term deal binding the Orioles to Baltimore. As of now, the club’s lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority is set to expire after the 2023 season. The Orioles can exercise a five-year extension by Feb. 1, seemingly making this offseason an important juncture for the franchise and the city even though the sides had already pushed the deadline back by agreeing to a two-year extension in February 2021.
The timing comes with the Angelos family that primarily owns the team embroiled in a legal dispute, but Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos told team staff members in September he intends for the organization to sign a new lease, doubling down on his 2019 comments that the team will play in Baltimore “as long as Fort McHenry is standing watch over the Inner Harbor.”
The 2023 season figures to be an exciting one for the Orioles. It would be best for all involved if it’s not played under a cloud of uncertainty over the team’s future in Baltimore.
Should they pick up Jordan Lyles’ option?
In an ideal winter, veteran right-hander Jordan Lyles will no longer be the recipient of the largest contract Elias has given to a free agent as the Orioles’ general manager. But that deal will prompt the offseason’s first big decision.
With the World Series complete, the Orioles have five days to decide whether to keep Lyles, who turned 32 last month, under contract for 2023 for $11 million or pay a $1 million buyout that makes him a free agent again.
In his first season in Baltimore, Lyles’ 179 innings were one shy of his career high and more than 50 more than the next closest Oriole. He was not particularly dominant — his 4.42 ERA was 40th of the 45 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title — but he was remarkably dependable, missing only one turn through the rotation and serving as a standout example to its less-experienced members. After ace John Means went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, Lyles was the only member of the Orioles’ rotation who had made more than 13 starts in a previous season.
As they do in deciding on Lyles’ option, the Orioles will have five days to activate Means from the 60-day injured list. But activating Means would largely be procedural, and with him unlikely to be ready for the start of 2023 and Lyles’ status unclear, Baltimore’s projected rotation, for now, lacks experience. Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer, Austin Voth, Tyler Wells, Spenser Watkins and Bruce Zimmermann each had stretches of success in 2022 — some longer than others — while prospects Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Mike Baumann figure to contend for starts in 2023.
It’s possible the Orioles add even more options through trades and free agency, but should such deals not come through, Lyles has shown there could be worse fallbacks.
Who already on the roster gets a raise?
If the Orioles keep Lyles, his salary would be nearly double the $6 million they paid him in 2022. He’s not the only player who could get a raise.
With outfielder Jake Cave agreeing to a one-year deal Friday, seven Orioles are eligible for arbitration, a process that allows players with multiple years of major league experience to increase their salaries before they become free agents. Four are in their first year of eligibility, meaning they could be paid significantly above the league minimum for the first time.
But the Orioles aren’t required to enter that process with each player and could non-tender some of them to avoid paying the increased salaries, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the group to receive $23.3 million. Austin Hays was the Orioles’ top hitter through the season’s first three months but fell off immensely; those struggles paired with the expected impacts of outfield prospects Kyle Stowers and Colton Cowser might mean the $3.1 million Hays is projected to receive could be deployed other ways. With several impact shortstops possibly on the market and several of Baltimore’s top prospects playing the position, the Orioles could look for an offensive upgrade to Jorge Mateo, though his glove and speed would certainly provide value at other spots. In Aramis Garcia, the Orioles already put one arbitration-eligible catcher they received on waivers back on them, and perhaps Cam Gallagher meets the same fate.
The only other raises for current Orioles would come via extensions for players yet to reach arbitration, which Elias noted he considers, as he does all else, on a case-by-case basis. The most logical recipient would be catcher Adley Rutschman, the former top prospect who earned Most Valuable Oriole honors and figures to be an American League Rookie of the Year finalist.
Which prospects get protected from the Rule 5 draft — and potential trade packages?
As the Orioles’ front office blends a deeper farm system with a desire to contend, the franchise’s minor leaguers are going to become more likely to make their way to other organizations. This offseason, that could happen in two ways.
Most notably would be as part of trade packages. In their four drafts under Elias, the Orioles have stockpiled talented position players, but as many members of that group approach the majors, it’s become clear there are not enough spots for all of them. The organizational depth, especially in the middle infield, would certainly make it easier parting with a handful of those players to add a top-tier bat or arm.
Going forward, the Orioles also figure to have tougher decisions to make when it comes to protecting prospects in the Rule 5 draft, which allows teams to add players who other organizations kept off their 40-man rosters after a certain amount of time. With Rutschman and Stowers already added during the season, the most significant players left needing protection are Rodriguez, shortstop Joey Ortiz, right-hander Seth Johnson and left-hander Drew Rom.
Players at risk of exposure include other college players Baltimore took in the 2019 draft, a trio of pitchers they acquired through trades recovering from Tommy John surgery and another group of intriguing arms including 2022 breakout pitchers Noah Denoyer and Ignacio Feliz.