5 questions facing the O's in offseason

October 11th, 2021

If the Orioles indeed feel their rebuild reached an inflection point, this upcoming winter could be a busy one for the club. Here are five questions they face heading into the offseason:

Who survives the 40-man shakeup?

The Orioles have an abnormal amount of roster flexibility this winter, without a single player signed to a guaranteed contract for 2022. That means much of the front office’s work will focus on positioning the 40-man in an ideal way, and there will be a lot of moving parts.

The first shakeup should come quickly: The Orioles need to reinstate six players from the 60-day IL after the World Series, most of whom -- Keegan Akin, Hunter Harvey, Travis Lakins Sr., Jorge López, Jorge Mateo and DJ Stewart -- are probably assured 40-man spots. Less is guaranteed for what could be as large as an eight-man arbitration class, with Pedro Severino, Pat Valaika, López and Richie Martin all non-tender candidates.

The Orioles also need to protect at least five prospects -- left-hander DL Hall, infielder Adam Hall, right-hander Kyle Bradish, outfielder Robert Neustrom and left-hander Kevin Smith -- from the Rule 5 Draft and are expected to keep at least one 40-man spot open for the Draft itself. This winter, get ready for roster moves.

Do any homegrown stars get moved?

The Orioles balked at offers for Cedric Mullins, John Means and Trey Mancini at the Trade Deadline this summer, but every winter the Orioles spend, rebuilding still comes with reborn speculation regarding their homegrown stars.

It would take a mountain to move Mullins -- but will the Orioles receive that kind of offer? Means was effectively off-limits last offseason, but reasserted himself as a legitimate rotation piece and is set for a big raise in arbitration. Are offers for him entertained more seriously? Mancini slowed down the stretch but proved healthy and capable coming off colon cancer. Have we seen his last game in Baltimore?

Orioles brass has long said it plans to build around this group, but the window for keeping them all might be closing. Mancini, a free agent after 2022, will turn 30 by Opening Day, and is yet to be approached about a possible extension. Means is 28 and about to get considerably more expensive, which cuts into his trade value. Teams will come calling this winter, as they have in the past. Will the Orioles change the way they answer?

Will the Orioles spend to improve their pitching?

The Orioles slapdash staff was never supposed to be good in 2021, but the end result was downright jarring. The O’s finished ’21 with a 5.84 ERA, the highest in team history, allowed 284 homers as a staff (tied for the fifth most ever) and came three runs away from becoming the third team to play to a minus-300 run differential. The staff cycled through 42 pitchers and watched its lone free-agent addition -- Matt Harvey, $1 million -- pitch to a 6.27 ERA.

Mudding things was how the club did not see a single pitching prospect take steps forward at the big league level; those young arms will be in the mix again in 2022, and more are coming. But the O’s have slashed payroll by roughly $100 million since '18, and general manager Mike Elias hasn’t handed out a multi-year free-agent contract during his tenure. Whether that changes will go a ways toward signaling the club’s intentions to compete next season.

“I think that if it's the right player and the right fit and the right value, we will entertain that and look for it,” Elias said last month. “Frankly, that may not be assured of getting something that we like, and I'm not going to artificially force something like that just to be able to say that we did that.”

When will Rutschman arrive?

It’ll be the main talking point come spring, after , the sport’s top overall prospect, completed an excellent first full season of pro ball at Triple-A Norfolk. All told, the backstop hit 23 homers with an .899 OPS and nearly as many walks (79) as strikeouts (90) between Double-A Bowie and Norfolk, while drawing rave reviews defensively. His arrival should mark the most anticipated by an O’s prospect in years.

When will it happen? Even if the Orioles tender Severino, no roster impediment exists for Rutschman not to break camp with the club. Elias is on record saying he will get that chance. But if Rutschman excels in Grapefruit League play, it’ll be harder to justify him beginning the year back in Norfolk, despite the service-time benefits it would bring the organization. Rutschman will turn 24 in February and left college as one of the most polished prospects in recent memory. But that extra year of control is hugely important for the Orioles and probably means he arrives in Baltimore around May.

Any surprises in arbitration?

The player to watch here is , who is arbitration-eligible for a second time and is coming off an injury-plagued down season. The Orioles talk about Santander like a building block by virtue of his 2020 season, when he broke out with 11 homers and .890 OPS in 37 games. But his numbers look less impactful in an expanded sample: He’s hit .252/.295/.474 with 49 homers in 240 games since 2019, missing time each season to injury.

That’s not all that different from the production they got from, say, Renato Núñez, whom Baltimore non-tendered last winter. Núñez was estimated to yield about $2 million via arbitration; Santander earned $2.1 million in 2021, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, and would be owed a raise.