Are signs of hope starting to emerge for the Orioles?
Baltimore Orioles right fielder Austin Hayes and center fielder Cedric Mullins (31). Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles lost 110 games in 2021, the third time in the past four seasons the club has had a sub-.400 winning percentage. It’s been five seasons since the Orioles last made the postseason, and the odds are stacked against them in the AL East.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • None

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

Option Decisions

  • None

Free Agents

Take a look at the guaranteed contracts section above and that’s about all you need to know about the state of the Baltimore Orioles. The good news is that they no longer have any onerous contracts on the books, but no amount of frugality will turn you into a rich man. At some point, the Orioles are going to need to start putting some long-term building blocks in place if they want to compete in the AL East.

The fact is, before the 2021 season even started, we pretty much knew what the two biggest stories of the year would be for these Orioles. Trey Mancini’s return was going to galvanize the fanbase and give the Baltimore faithful a real feel-good story to follow, and Adley Rutschman would continue his march towards the major leagues. 

Mancini put on a show in the Home Run Derby and played in 147 games during the regular season. He hit .255/.326/.432 with 21 home runs in 616 plate appearances, good for just 0.8 rWAR overall. It was a good, albeit not great return to action for Mancini, who nevertheless gave fans in Baltimore something to cheer about.

Rutschman took another giant steps towards becoming the face of the franchise. He hit .271/.392/.508 in 80 games with Double-A Bowie before earning his promotion to Triple-A, where he slashed .312/.405/.490 across 185 plate appearances. If Rutschman isn’t in the Major Leagues in 2022, it’s because something went seriously wrong with the CBA negotiations and nobody is playing baseball. He’s ready.

Beyond those narratives, there was a third story that somewhat unexpectedly took over headlines in Baltimore this season: the emergence of Cedric Mullins. The 26-year-old broke out in a major way, posting MVP-caliber numbers, making his first All-Star game and earning his first Silver Slugger Award. He posted a 5.7 rWAR season while slashing .291/.360/.518, hitting 30 bombs and stealing 30 bases to be MLB's only 30-30 player. Those of us who remember Mullins from a dismal 22-game stint back in 2019 need to seriously re-calibrate expectations for Baltimore’s newest star.

The rest of the roster remains in serious flux, especially on the pitching side, where John Means continues to be their undisputed top starter. Means had a good year, logging 181 innings in 31 starts with a 3.62 ERA/4.61 FIP. At 28 years old, he may not seem like the ideal building block for the rotation, but he is still under team control for three more seasons, which is why the team hasn’t seriously explored trading Means up to this point.

Again, however, we must look to the minor leagues to see the most impactful developments for Baltimore. Grayson Rodriguez looks like an ace in the making, and like Rutschman, he’s nearing major league readiness. Rodriguez made 18 starts in Double-A, logging 79 2/3 innings with a stellar 2.60 ERA/2.73 FIP. The towering 6’5″ right-hander is a significant talent, and he could be pitching in Baltimore by next summer.

Southpaw D.L. Hall could join him there soon. Hall was just added to the 40-man roster. He made just seven starts in Double-A but nevertheless posted a promising 3.33 ERA in those 31 2/3 innings. He also put up a 3.46 ERA/3.22 FIP over 80 2/3 innings in High-A. Nothing is a sure thing in the prospect world, but in Rodriguez and Hall, the O’s have a pretty strong pair of rotation arms that are pretty close to kicking Baltimore’s rebuild into high gear.

Given how close Baltimore’s highest profile prospects are to the majors, it’s fair to wonder if this might be the winter when GM Mike Elias finally make a significant play for a free agent. They aren’t ready to compete, but they also might not be quite as far from the types of pre-contender free agency deals that we’ve seen for veterans like Jayson Werth and Manny Machado.

There’s certainly some room on the roster (and obviously on the payroll) to add a veteran or two. They’re fairly well stocked in the outfield where Mullins was flanked by Anthony Santander and Austin Hays. Whichever of Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle aren’t playing first base can also spend time in the grass, though they’re both better suited in a designated hitter role. 

Hays had a bit of a breakout 3.1 rWAR season, though Santander took a step back after a solid 2020. Santander and Hays are under team control for three and four more years respectively, so they are likely to continue to log a starter’s workload in the grass. That said, Mancini, Mountcastle, Santander, and Hays may be a perfect barbershop quartet, but the O’s could easily split up the timeshare for left, right, first, and DH more than four ways, should Elias find a free agent at the right price.

There’s room for another character in the outfield carousel, but if Elias is to inject some talent into this lineup, he’s most likely to do so in the infield. Jorge Mateo, Ramon Urias, and Kelvin Gutierrez rank as the incumbents next to Mountcastle in the infield. 

Mountcastle, at 24 and a longtime top prospect, probably has the longest leash of the four after slashing a palatable .255/.309/.487 with 33 home runs and 89 RBIs in 586 plate appearances. He has now been 16 percent better than average with the stick by measure of wRC+ in 726 career plate appearances in the majors. That’s a promising chunk of action for Mountcastle, though the bar will be set high since he does not add much value with his glove.

Mateo, Urias, and Gutierrez are more place holders than long-term pieces. Mateo is the youngest, and he will turn 27 in June of 2022. Urias as been the most productive of the bunch, as the 27-year-old has hit an impressive .286/.365/.425 in 323 plate appearances over two seasons since being claimed off waivers from the Cardinals. Urias should feel secure in his roster spot, as his ability to move around the infield makes the right-handed hitter a pretty ideal fit as a fringe starter/utility type. That might be the ceiling for Mateo and Richie Martin, Urias’ theoretical backup at short, who hasn’t shown enough bat to stick it in the majors (.214/.343/.348 in 134 plate appearance in the minors last year).

They can’t all be tenth men, however, which is where a free agent or two could make sense for Baltimore. Their prospect lists aren’t real deep in terms of infielders nearing the majors, outside of Jahmai Jones, a former Angels’ prospect acquired last February for Alex Cobb. Jones hit alright in the minors this season (.251/.343/.445), but the numbers aren’t so flashy as to block the acquisition of a potential free agent. They recently added Lucius Fox from the Royals to join this pool of potential infielders.

Of course, this is all speculation, as Elias has yet to show a willingness to spend in free agency since taking over in November 2018. To be fair, there has been little reason to spend on a team destined for the AL East basement. Given that they are a near certainty to finish in the basement again in 2022, it may be a year or two early for Elias to open up the pocketbook.

Elias’ challenge, after all, is unique for a rebuild given the incline of the climb they face in their division. The Red Sox nearly made the World Series, the Blue Jays are just beginning an era of presumed prosperity, the Rays have a farm system that should keep them in contention for the next half decade, and the last time the Yankees had a losing season was the year Derek Jeter made his MLB debut. In that climate, the Orioles aren’t likely to luck into a playoff spot.

Still, if Mullins’ breakout is real and Rutschman has the type of 2022 that dreams are made of, the Birds will have long-term answers at the two toughest positions to fill. The third position on that list – shortstop – happens to have a robust collection of talent available in free agency this season. It’s not super likely that the Orioles will reel in Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, but they could be players at the tail end of that market, especially if the jobs dry up elsewhere and someone like Javier Baez begins to consider a short-term make-good kind of offer. Speculatively speaking, there’s also a potentially robust secondary market on the trade block, should they want to make a move for someone like Paul DeJong, whose contract should make him an easy get in terms of the talent return.

Elias could also look to the hot corner, though there aren’t as many appealing options after Kris Bryant and Chris Taylor. The same can be said for second base. At the very least, Baltimore could look to make the type of addition they’ve made in recent seasons, bringing in a veteran on a short-term deal in the mold of Freddy Galvis, keeping one eye on flipping them at the deadline. 

Jose Iglesias, Cesar Hernandez, Josh Harrison, Leury Garcia, Jonathan Villar, Matt Duffy, or Marwin Gonzalez might merit consideration for that kind of deal. Former Mariner Shed Long is a textbook target as a former top prospect who is still relatively young at 26 years old.

Galvis’ one-year, $1.5M deal was the only major league contract Elias handed out last offseason, and until we see otherwise, that’s probably the level of dealing that we can expect from Elias.

There’s even less likely to be a splashy free agent pitcher making his new home in Baltimore, though the O’s ought to at least explore the middle of the market. 

One of Elias’ trademarks in recent seasons has been acquiring enough low-cost, quad-A-type arms to keep their farmhands fresh. He hasn’t wanted to rush any of their pitching prospects through the system, and that means having enough talent on hand to survive a full 162-game season.

Players like Bruce Zimmermann, Zac Lowther, Dean Kremer, and Keegan Akin give the Orioles options for the rotation, but only Means has a rotation spot on lockdown. The others not only could be bumped from the rotation, but they have options remaining as well. 

Paul Fry, Dillon Tate, Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells, southpaw Tanner Scott and breakout righty Cole Sulser did enough to earn bullpen seats next year, but there’s definitely room for an addition or two beyond that group.

The Orioles aren’t breaking any doors down yet to get out of the AL East basement, but there is intrigue at the top of Baltimore’s roster for the first time in years. Rutschman is the type of two-way talent that can change the course of a franchise, but when he arrives, the ticking clock starts, too.

This article first appeared on MLB Trade Rumors and was syndicated with permission.

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