Three years ago, the last time Mike Elias found himself in San Diego for the winter meetings, the circumstances were far different. Back then, the executive vice president and general manager of the Orioles entered his second offseason in Baltimore on the back of another 100-loss season, with competitive baseball — and the spending that accompanies it — not at the forefront of his mind.
Elias is back in San Diego this week, and so much has changed. The Orioles are now an organization poised to increase payroll and build off a surprising playoff push last season, when an influx of young talent from baseball’s top-ranked farm system materialized into wins.
At this year’s winter meetings — the first in-person event since 2019 — Elias and Baltimore’s brass face the task of supplementing a team that surged to its most victories since 2016. The negotiations should be more lively than Elias’ last trip.
On Baltimore’s wish list are a starting pitcher and offensive help. There are multiple ways to pursue talent upgrades, and they don’t necessarily involve rapidly increasing spending. Then again, even doubling their 2022 payroll wouldn’t launch Baltimore into the upper echelon of MLB payrolls — not even close.
The team spent $66 million in 2022, according to Spotrac, and doubling up would have only pushed the Orioles from No. 29 to No. 21 in the majors. But the luxury of having all this young talent in Baltimore is how affordable that talent can be. Even a splash during the winter meetings won’t push the Orioles into spending more than planned, while the team should still improve.
“The moves are going to have to make sense; we’re not going to force it,” Elias said at the end of the season. “But we feel the time is right from a strategic standpoint — in fact, the time is pressing — to do that now that we have the foundation of the top farm system in baseball and a major league team that is young and talented, and now with a .500-plus record, this is the time to start to make more significant investments in the major league payroll. Whether that comes in the form of free agents or buy-side trades, I don’t know yet. But I would expect one, if not both, of those activities from us.”
Midway through a 2022 campaign few saw coming, Elias nevertheless opted to trade closer Jorge López and first baseman Trey Mancini. The window, Elias felt, wasn’t yet open enough to climb through — the return for those players was still more valuable, in the longterm, than their presence would have been for the rest of the year.
But after those trades, Elias assured fans that Baltimore would enjoy “liftoff” this offseason.
As of yet, that liftoff has been slow-going. They are in agreement on a one-year major league deal with right-hander Kyle Gibson, pending a physical, a source confirmed to The Baltimore Banner. They’ve also signed former Red Sox first baseman and outfielder Franchy Cordero to a minor league deal. But the major movement should begin in San Diego and as the offseason progresses.
Still, the minor moves have already begun to answer one of the main offseason focuses for Baltimore.
Gibson, despite a 5.05 ERA with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2022, is a 35-year-old starter who projects as a back-end veteran in an otherwise inexperienced rotation, an innings-eater who could fill a void left by right-hander Jordan Lyles, who became a free agent when Baltimore declined his $11 million team option for 2023. The deeper left field wall at Camden Yards could serve as a salve for Gibson, who has a propensity for giving up the long ball. According to Statcast, he would’ve allowed 18 homers if he played every game at Camden Yards last season, down from the 24 he actually gave up.
Through Cordero and Lewin Díaz — who the Orioles claimed off waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates — the Orioles have targeted two left-handed hitting first basemen. Cordero, who isn’t on the 40-man roster, and Díaz aren’t necessarily the Opening Day answers for Baltimore behind first baseman Ryan Mountcastle; it’s too early in the offseason to say that.
While neither Cordero nor Díaz have shown tremendous upside at the plate, they could be low-budget options should Baltimore miss out on higher-end free agents, such as the switch-hitting Josh Bell.
Cordero’s 84 games last season were his most in the majors thus far, and he hit .219 with a .697 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS). Díaz, in limited time with the Miami Marlins, has a career .181 average but has impressed defensively at first. Adding both gives Baltimore depth it previously lacked, with Jesús Aguilar becoming a free agent after the season and Mancini traded away at the deadline.
Elsewhere, with Adley Rutschman the only catcher on the 40-man roster, the Orioles must search for a backup. Bullpen help is always a focus, and the Rule 5 Draft this week could be a way to add there.
But some of the bigger splashes in the offseason pond may come when the Orioles look to add more offensive firepower. According to The New York Post, Baltimore has checked in on several of the top free agent shortstops, including Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson. For the most part, teams do their due diligence each offseason when a big-name player is on the market; for instance, the Orioles talked with Correa last year despite remaining in a rebuild.
There’s less urgency when it comes to adding a shortstop, so Baltimore might not enter into a bidding war on one of the biggest names. Jorge Mateo, who is arbitration eligible, was tendered a contract and is expected to return after starting 149 games last season at shortstop for the Orioles. Gunnar Henderson, who burst onto the scene late in the year, can play at short, as can prospect Joey Ortiz, a new addition to the 40-man roster.
There’s more offseason focus on adding a starting pitcher who can slot into the forefront of Baltimore’s rotation, either through free agency or a trade. Tampa Bay Rays shelled out $40 million to sign right-hander Zach Eflin on a three-year deal, though, so the market for starting pitching is pricey.
With the top farm system in baseball and a glut of infield prospects, the Orioles are in position to deal young players in order to add a front-end starter still under team control.
“I really like the players that we’ve been drafting and developing or trading for, but this is part of the business, and that’s why you amass such depth in your organization,” Elias said in October. “There’s going to be times when our richness in players is going to be what we have to lean into in order to win out here.”
The organization is in a much different place than when Elias traveled to San Diego for the winter meetings three years ago. This time, Baltimore should be in a position to add talent and increase spending — although not frivolously. The avenues to explore are numerous, and the winter meetings should add some clarity to how the Orioles look next year.