BALTIMORE -- It’s that time of year again. The weather is cooling, and the offseason is officially ready to begin in earnest.
Let’s use it as an opportunity to crack open the Orioles Inbox and address some of your pressing questions regarding the team.
Do you see the Orioles shopping Sulser this winter?
-- @Corayray1, via Twitter
I think there is a good chance. Quietly, Cole Sulser enjoyed a breakout year amid the Orioles’ volatile ‘pen, pitching to a 2.70 ERA, 2.98 FIP and 28% strikeout rate at age 31. The right-hander also saved eight games while putting up reverse splits, showing an ability to get left-handed hitters out with regularity due to his effective changeup. In short, he was a weapon -- one of the few Brandon Hyde had at his disposal on a consistent basis in 2021.
So why shop him? Relievers are always in demand, and also considered highly volatile. Sulser’s contractual status is attractive as well, given how, despite his age, he won’t be arbitration-eligible until after the 2022 season. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has been aggressive shopping relievers during the team’s rebuild, swinging deals for Mychal Givens, Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro in recent seasons. The two times he didn’t sell high on bullpen arms came this summer with Tanner Scott and Paul Fry -- and both watched their value plummet in the second half. Sulser garnered interest at the Deadline and is likely to command more this winter. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Orioles dealt him.
Besides D.L. Hall and Kyle Bradish, who do you think the Orioles protect from the Rule 5 Draft?
The Orioles shielded six prospects from Rule 5 eligibility last winter, quite a large class. There is a chance they match that figure again this year. As it stands, they have five of their Top 30 Prospects in need of protection: lefty D.L. Hall (No. 3 per MLB Pipeline), righty Kyle Bradish (No. 8), infielder Terrin Vavra (No. 13), lefty Kevin Smith (No. 14) and shortstop Adam Hall (No. 15). Also warranting consideration are upstart outfielder Robert Neustrom, lefty reliever Nick Vespi and fireballing righty Felix Bautista.
Do they protect everyone? I don’t think so. Hall, Bradish, Vavra and Smith are locks. But Hall might be far enough away from the Majors -- he hit .248 with little power at High-A last season, as a 22-year old -- for the Orioles to leave him unprotected. That would open at least one spot for another player closer to the big leagues. Neustrom, Vespi and Bautista all finished '21 at Triple-A.
Who are some realistic free-agent targets for the Orioles this winter?
I don’t think the Orioles will be playing at or near the top of the free-agent market, given their financial constraints and competitive timeline. If they viewed 2022 as a legitimate start to their competitive window, maybe things would be different. But I don’t think they do. Next winter feels like a better launching off point for that, potentially.
I do expect them to comb the lower end of the market, particularly for starting-pitching depth, as they have in years past. Might a reunion with Matt Harvey be in the cards? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Other reclamation-type veterans feel more in their mold, perhaps ones Baltimore can get on Minor League deals. Think James Paxton, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney, Chase Anderson -- arms like that, with experience, upside and something to prove.
Which other Major League free agents should the Orioles target?
The Orioles again need shortstop and third-base help, and they could be in the market for upgrades at second base as well. Besides pitching, infield is their biggest need and they’ll need to look outside the organization for it, with prospects like Jordan Westburg and Coby Mayo still developing. Who is this year’s José Iglesias, Freddy Galvis or Maikel Franco? Old friend Jonathan Villar is back on the market. So are former Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons and versatile veterans like Joe Panik and Josh Harrison.
Is Yusniel Diaz's injury more of a "Groundhog Day" or "Twilight Zone" scenario?
Not entirely sure what you mean here, John, but Diaz’s recent injury in the Arizona Fall League is certainly an extension of the issues that continue to plague the former top prospect. One silver lining: previously, Diaz dealt continuously with lower-body, soft-tissue issues, and this is a shoulder problem the Orioles believe to be minor. But the bottom line is: They sent Diaz to the AFL to binge at bats, and anything that keeps him off the field isn’t a positive sign for his development. The outfielder just turned 25, and hit just .161 with five homers this summer while being limited to 65 games.