Although the prep work for baseball’s offseason began at last month’s general managers meetings, this week’s Winter Meetings will be where the deal-making and decision-making climb to another level.
We know the Orioles’ pursuit of pitchers will define their winter. There’s just another part of their winter that hasn’t really been addressed, and these meetings with all 30 teams under one roof could be a significant part of their decision-making process. It relates to how they are determining which prospects are ready to handle larger major league roles this year and, more crucially, which players they’d move to create those openings.
At a basic level, it’s a process of deciding whether to move on from a good player on a playoff team in hopes the player taking that spot will be better. It is mostly an internal decision, but if another team is willing to meet their valuation on an established player, that could alter their calculus.
They will be looking at a variety of factors as they deliberate, chief among them their own internal evaluations of the prospects or recent graduates and what their immediate strengths and weaknesses will be in the majors. This is an important part of the equation because, at a basic level, manager Brandon Hyde needs to want to play these guys.
Their projection model will probably have a say in things as well. We’ll never know what the exact outputs are in OMAR, the Orioles’ analytics platform, in terms of player forecasts for 2024 and beyond. We can guess that they’re in the general ballpark of what’s publicly available, and one of my favorite sets of that data, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections at FanGraphs, is the first one we can make comparisons on.
That data set paints two distinct views, depending on which position group you’re looking at. On the infield, there’s the relatively wild 2.7 wins above replacement for Jackson Holliday, the game and team’s top prospect, should he get a full season in the majors. That’s pretty exciting, especially considering how ZiPS was high on and right on Gunnar Henderson’s rookie-year production.
But, if we’re ascribing likelihoods that Holliday will break camp with the Orioles and be their Opening Day shortstop, it’d be a pretty low one for factors not at all led by his talent or readiness. So, looking beyond him, this particular forecast has Jordan Westburg projected at 2.6 WAR with a .105 OPS+ (with 100 being league-average), Coby Mayo at 2 WAR with a 99 OPS+, Joey Ortiz at 1.6 WAR with an 85 OPS+, Ramón Urías at 1.6 WAR with a 100 OPS+, Connor Norby at 1.3 WAR with a 96 OPS+ and Jorge Mateo at 1.3 WAR with an 81 OPS+.
Mayo, like Holliday, probably will start in Triple-A and is more of a midseason option than an Opening Day one in any realistic scenario. The rest are fascinating to compare to one another for the infield spots around Henderson, who can play third base or shortstop.
This forecast would suggest Westburg as the unquestioned best of the rest, with a coin flip between Urías and Ortiz. Norby’s second base-only profile could play if there are three other candidates for the left side of the infield, and Mateo lagging is no surprise here. The question the Orioles will need to decide internally, before they gauge interest for Urías or Mateo on the open market, is whether Westburg and Ortiz making the league minimum of around $740,000 for that production is more attractive than Mateo at $2.7 million or Urías’ arbitration salary, projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to be $2 million.
Saving a few million dollars, for a team that has given no reason for anyone to describe its payroll budget as anything but limited, could be meaningful in adding at other positions. If the Orioles really are trying to save money, it’s the outfield that will give them chances to do that — as well as giving them the most headaches as they try to figure out what to do.
There’s no denying how valuable and meaningful the presence of Austin Hays in left field, Cedric Mullins in center field and Anthony Santander in right field is to the Orioles. That’s reflected in their past performance, projected performance and also their projected salaries. Mullins is forecast for 2.9 WAR and a 107 OPS+, Santander a 2.3 WAR with a 119 OPS+ — behind only Henderson and Adley Rutschman for tops on the Orioles — with Hays projected at 1.9 WAR and a 110 OPS+.
Santander’s projected arbitration salary is $12.7 million, Mullins’ is $6.4 million and Hays’ is $6.1 million. That’s well above the league minimum that Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad would make, and the projection outpaces what they’re forecast for as well. ZiPS had Cowser projected at 1.5 WAR and a 99 OPS+ and Kjerstad at 1.2 WAR with a 98 OPS+.
Those near-term numbers would make moving on from an outfielder to clear space for either (or both) of those prospects feel principally motivated by finances, unless the return was in an area that helped raise the Orioles’ ceiling — a starting pitcher on a comparable salary comes to mind.
But the proverbial black box into this decision-making process that we can’t know until the Orioles run out their Opening Day lineup is this: How willing are they to maybe take a short-term hit on production for a player who can potentially, in the long term, be better than the player they’re moving on from? To put it more simply, how willing are they to move on from a good player on the hope that his replacement is better than good, potentially even great?
In these cases, the outcomes for the prospects in question probably depend on what their major league opportunity looks like next year. Cowser looked lost as his first major league stint progressed, but the Orioles believe there’s still a ton of upside there. To reach that, he’ll probably need to figure out his issues at the major league level because he’s mastered Triple-A. Like Hays and Mullins and Santander before him, consistent exposure to major league pitching is probably what will help him perform as the Orioles expect.
Kjerstad’s major league time went better than Cowser’s, and he showed an ability to game plan well for opposing pitchers in 2023, but his swing decisions will likely be challenged by major league pitching over a longer sample and he won’t be able to refine them at Triple-A.
Before they try to shop anyone currently holding down a significant major league role, they’ll need to decide where they stand and whether the trade-off would be worth it. And, if they believe it’s time to make room for younger players by moving experienced ones, the nonstop interaction between clubs at the Winter Meetings will be the place to get the ball rolling.