BALTIMORE -- However their roster changes in the weeks to come, the Orioles are holding on to two of their key pieces -- at least for now -- and bidding adieu to another.
Less than a week after placing him on outright waivers, the Orioles traded infielder Jonathan Villar to the Marlins ahead of Monday’s non-tender deadline, acquiring left-handed pitching prospect Easton Lucas from Miami in return. The club tendered contracts to notable trade candidates Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens as well as Hanser Alberto, Miguel Castro and Trey Mancini. The Orioles also avoided arbitration with Richard Bleier by inking the lefty to a one-year contract.
A 14th-round pick of the Marlins out of Pepperdine in 2019, Lucas, 23, posted a 3.98 ERA at Low Class A Batavia in 2019, his first year in pro ball. A non-ranked prospect, the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Lucas flashed upside in his first season of pro ball, notching 41 strikeouts and walking only nine in 34 1/3 innings between Batavia and the Gulf Coast League. He’d been an Orioles Draft target this past June before going to Miami near the middle of Day 2.
“It’s a starter’s profile and somebody who, with continued success, can project as a backend starter for us, possibly, with good development,” Orioles general manager Mike Elias said. “We feel like we have put ourselves in good position to bring our growing, young, core players back and having also added to our future and Minor League stockpile. Bringing a young pitcher like Lucas into the fold is exactly what we’re trying to do and makes sense for our future objectives.”
The cost was Villar, whom the Orioles had been searching for a trade partner for since late July. Arguably their best all-around player in 2019, Villar was a longshot to return in '20 once the Orioles requested outright waivers for him last Wednesday, not interested in shouldering the sizable raise Villar is set to earn in his third year of arbitration eligibility.
Villar made $4.8 million in 2019, when he hit .274 with 24 homers, 40 steals and a .792 OPS, but he was set to earn around $10.4 million this winter, according to projections by MLB Trade Rumors.
The Marlins are now responsible for going through the arbitration process with Villar. Even at his 2019 salary, he immediately became Miami’s highest-paid player.
“We’re going to miss him, but this is the right move for us on a number of levels,” Elias said. “It’s hard to let him go, but we have to keep the eye on our strategic objectives, which prioritize the future right now. When a guy is facing free agency, who is set to command a large salary that he’s earned from his play, when we have the chance to use that playing time on other players, use that payroll on other players and other objectives, and then get a young pitcher back that we view as a prospect, that makes a lot of sense.”
Asked which players he foresaw getting the bulk of opportunities in Villar’s place, Elias mentioned prospects Mason McCoy and Rylan Bannon as possibilities perhaps by the end of 2020. But he relented, “We don’t have a lot of upper-level Minor Leaguers that are necessarily beating down the door to the big leagues right now,” and suggested replacements could come from outside the organization.
As it stands now, the Orioles’ middle-infield options are limited to Alberto, Richie Martin and Pat Valaika, though the latter two could begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk.
“Despite how much we all enjoyed Jonathan, where he was in his career, with the salary range he was getting into, we felt there are players who have more long-term possibility with the timeline we are anticipating,” Elias said. “We will see who ends up competing for those spots this year.”
Perhaps options will come in a potential deal for Bundy, who the Orioles reportedly shopped prior to the Trade Deadline this past season. Elias called Bundy “a popular man,” adding “his is a name I hear often,” hinting at the possibility of dealing the right-hander despite Tuesday’s tender. If Bundy remains through next week’s Winter Meetings, the likelihood is he would join Mancini, Givens, Castro and Alberto in exchanging salary figures with the Orioles in an attempt to negotiate new one-year deals. If they can’t, they will have their salaries determined by an independent arbiter.
For Bleier -- whose contract is worth $916,000, per MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand -- agreeing to a deal Monday means he avoids that process. Bleier was in his first year of arbitration eligibility, as are Mancini (projected $5.7 million per MLB Trade Rumors), Castro (projected $1.2 million) and Alberto (projected $1.9 million). Givens is second-year eligible and earned $2.15 million in 2019, when he pitched to a 4.57 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 58 appearances, converting 11 saves.
Projections from MLB Trade Rumors indicate that Monday's decisions will cost the Orioles roughly $14 million. Tack on $35 million worth of guaranteed contracts for Chris Davis and Alex Cobb, plus at least another $9.5 million in near-minimum salaries for pre-arbitration-eligible players, and the Orioles are staring at roughly $58.5 million in commitments for 2020. That number would be reduced significantly if Bundy and/or Givens are traded (Mancini remains a trade candidate as well), and already sits well below the club’s 2019 Opening Day payroll of $80 million.
The Orioles’ payroll at Opening Day 2018 was $148.5 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts.