SAN DIEGO — The pitch has become easier for Mike Elias.
The Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager can point to the new left field wall at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, pushed back and increased in height to make the ballpark more pitcher-friendly. He can point to an analytics department that can redefine a pitcher’s approach. He can point to the standout defense along the infield and in center field, or the young catcher who has already developed into one of the best pitch framers in the league.
“There’s really a lot there for a free agent pitcher,” Elias said Monday inside a hotel suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego.
At the winter meetings, the dominoes of the major league offseason began plunking into each other. First, it was right-hander Jacob deGrom heading to the Texas Rangers, a monumental move that set that market on starting pitching. The next domino to fall was right-hander Justin Verlander’s deal with the New York Mets. Each commanded mighty price tags, and with those signings the eyes of the market shifted toward the next big piece waiting to teeter and fall.
So far, the Orioles have waited to leap into center stage.
But as each domino tips, Baltimore’s time may be approaching. Elias said Monday that the Orioles could search for a front-end starter via free agency or a trade. The Orioles have agreed to a one-year deal with right-hander Kyle Gibson. But adding Gibson doesn’t close the organization’s interest in signing another starter.
“We’ve been very aggressive talking to free agent starters that are out there,” Elias said, noting how Baltimore has met with about eight starters and could meet with more. “I just know that we want to get another pitcher, at least, at some point, who we feel like we can pencil into to the rotation. Whether it’s the Opening Day spot or in the top five somewhere, I don’t know yet.”
As the winter meetings progress, here are five options Baltimore could target in the coming days, with multiple hearing from the Orioles already.
Noah Syndergaard is not the pitcher he once was. Back when he debuted as a 22-year-old with a massive fastball, the sky appeared to be the limit for him. But injuries have limited Syndergaard to 26 combined starts in 2021 and 2022, and now, at 30, his market is at a crossroads.
On one side is the allure of dominance that marked much of his time with the New York Mets. On the other? An uncertainty around his long-term durability.
But Syndergaard, regardless of which side he trends toward, would be a signal of Baltimore’s willingness to make a real push this offseason. Syndergaard met with the Orioles in a Zoom call recently, a source confirmed to The Baltimore Banner. He could be available for a short-term, prove-it deal, the kind that gives the Orioles an out should Syndergaard not restore his performances to their previous heights.
Last season, split between the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels, Syndergaard held a 3.94 ERA in 134 2/3 innings. Even with a drop off in the effectiveness of his four-seam fastball, his sinker earned a minus-12 run value, according to Statcast — the lower the value, the better for pitchers. There’s no guarantee, but Syndergaard could be a frontline splash.
The Orioles met with former New York Yankees right-hander Jameson Taillon last month, a source told The Baltimore Banner. Taillon is another interesting option, coming off a season in which he threw 177 1/3 innings and held a 3.91 ERA.
According to MLB.com, the Orioles would have to ward off interest from the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, among others, for Taillon. And at 31, he would likely expect a longer-term deal. Elias hasn’t signed a free agent to a guaranteed multi-year deal since arriving in Baltimore in 2018. He said Monday that could change.
“We’ve had conversations already, and offers already, that have been more than one year,” Elias said. “We’ll just see where this goes. I think it’s all so case-by-case that it sounds a little boring for me to answer it this way, but it’s the truth. It just depends on the situation and the position and the players and the dollars and every little thing that we look at.”
Chris Bassitt would be another candidate to earn a long-term deal, entering his age 34 season after striking out 167 batters in 181 2/3 innings for the New York Mets. He started 30 games and held a 1.145 WHIP.
A downside to Bassitt is he declined a qualifying offer from the Mets, which means any team that signs Bassitt will owe New York a third-round draft selection. Baltimore’s front office has made the most of draft picks in previous years, although Elias said facing a qualifying offer is “not going to make us turn away from anybody.”
“We have ways, evaluative lenses of kind of factoring in trading off a pick, which in our case would be a third-round pick for signing a guy like that,” Elias said. “You don’t love giving up the third-round pick, but I don’t think it’s any type of non-starter. And fortunately, we’ve got a great farm system right now, so I think that would put you in a little bit of a position of comfort versus a team that didn’t feel like we were using our minor league spots well.”
It’s conceivable the Orioles break spring training with five right-handers in the rotation. That’s not an outcome that Elias hopes for, but with few left-handers on the market who would fit well with the Orioles, he doesn’t rule it out.
Then again, Elias could seek out left-hander Sean Manaea. He experienced an unsteady year for the San Diego Padres, throwing to a 4.96 ERA in 158 innings, but the 30-year-old could ensure there’s some variation in Baltimore’s starting staff. Plus, the Orioles have a strong track record of perfecting change-ups, and Manaea’s offering could use work, with a plus-11 run value last season, per Statcast.
“I think we did miss the lefty a little bit [last season],” Elias said. “I think we would love to have one. There’s just so few out there that it’s hard for me to say that that’s mandatory for us to get a left-handed starter.”
Left-handed prospect DL Hall could force his way into the rotation with a strong spring training, and left-hander John Means, working back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, is expected to return midway through the summer. But Manaea could be an intriguing veteran option to break camp with the team.
The next big domino to fall in the starting pitching market could be Carlos Rodón. The left-hander likely is above the Orioles’ projected salary targets, although the former San Francisco Giants hurler would be a definite Opening Day starter for a team without one on the roster.
In his second consecutive All-Star campaign, Rodón threw 178 innings and held a 2.88 ERA with a WHIP of just 1.028. Rodón would be a reach, likely out of the Orioles’ price range. But a signing of that caliber would anchor a staff that has plenty of up-and-comers in it.