Hot Stove season has arrived, and for contending MLB teams -- a group that now includes the Orioles -- the focus is on potential upgrades at the big league level. A talented crop of free agents has hit the market. Possible trade partners are ready for negotiations.
Coming off a 101-win showing, American League East champion Baltimore should be an attractive destination for free-agent players. The O’s could also be more willing to substantially increase their payroll with their window of competing for World Series titles seemingly open.
Even though the Orioles had a remarkable 2023 campaign, they endured a disappointing finish, as they were swept in three games by the Rangers in the AL Division Series. Baltimore’s roster has room to improve, and if it does, it could be better built for postseason success.
General manager Mike Elias is heading into the winter with a clear, focused plan for the O’s.
“The main nucleus of the team is in place. So we’re looking for upgrades,” Elias told MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand at the GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Tuesday. “They come on the pitching side more so for us.”
Here’s a more detailed look at the offseason wish list laid out by Elias at the GM Meetings.
1. A starting pitcher for the top half of the rotation
In 2023, Orioles starters posted a 4.14 ERA that ranked 11th in MLB and seventh in the AL. The most encouraging performances came from young hurlers Kyle Bradish (2.83 ERA in 30 starts) and Grayson Rodriguez (2.58 ERA in 13 second-half outings).
But Baltimore still lacks a top-tier ace. That was evident in the ALDS, when Bradish, Rodriguez and Dean Kremer combined to record a 14.63 ERA (13 earned runs in eight innings) vs. Texas. There wasn’t a proven No. 1 starter to carry the O’s through October.
However, it still seems a bit unlikely the Orioles will enter (and win) a bidding war for a marquee free-agent starter, such as Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Aaron Nola or others.
“There are a lot of teams going for it this offseason, and so I think saying we have to acquire an ace this winter is setting ourselves up for possible disappointment,” Elias said.
It may not come in the form of an “ace,” but Baltimore will attempt to add a starter to its staff, which is now without Kyle Gibson and Jack Flaherty, who have both entered free agency. Elias would prefer to acquire a pitcher who can slot in next to Bradish and Rodriguez near the top.
“I’m being a little more broad with that, because I think our team could just benefit from an upgrade to our rotation,” Elias said. “Somebody that projects for the front half of the rotation would be wonderful.”
2. A proven back-end reliever (potentially a closer)
If Félix Bautista was healthy, targeting a late-inning arm may not be on Elias’ agenda. But the Orioles’ All-Star closer is expected to miss the entire 2024 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October, leaving a hole at the back end of the club’s bullpen.
Baltimore navigated the final five weeks of the 2023 campaign without a closer, mixing and matching its high-leverage arms in the late innings. That isn’t the team’s preferred approach.
All-Star setup man Yennier Cano and left-handers Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez will all be back in ‘24, but they could be better served as options for the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Tyler Wells and DL Hall may still have futures as starters, which could remove them from the bullpen conversation for next season.
Bautista should close games for the Orioles in 2025 and beyond, so this is only a one-year need. But it’s a spot Baltimore is aiming to fill.
“We’re looking. I can’t predict what outcome we get this winter, but we’re looking. I think having somebody who has closed before would be really nice,” Elias said. “We really want to get another back-end reliever, and maybe that guy is the closer.”
Top free agent Josh Hader could prove to be too expensive, but other relievers with closing experience on the market include Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, Hector Neris and David Robertson.
3. Potential position-player depth
Don’t expect the Orioles’ lineup to undergo many changes for 2024. Elias is quite content with the group from ‘23.
“We basically have a position-player group that you could roll back out,” Elias said.
Still, Elias said he plans to “address some bench spots.” He also feels there’s a good bit of available playing time in the outfield, due to Aaron Hicks hitting free agency. Baltimore will look to keep Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander all fresh, and it also frequently rotates outfielders through the designated-hitter spot.
“There’s a ton of playing time available for a fourth person, and it’s sort of up in the air who that’s going to be primarily,” Elias said.