Free agency previews: This month, Paul Mancano will profile free agents who might be of interest to the Orioles at each position group.
Through the first five months of the 2023 season, the Orioles were overjoyed with their bullpen. They had one of the best closers in the game and an ideal setup man in front of him, plus several moveable parts for lower-leverage situations.
Then, on a warm night in late August, disaster struck.
One month later, when the O’s finally accepted the inevitable and announced Félix Bautista would undergo Tommy John surgery, the state of the bullpen was far more dire. The team’s lack of reliable relievers was evident in a postseason sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers, and as general manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias embarks on building next year’s roster, adding to the bullpen will be a top priority.
Whether the O’s choose to hand the closer role to 29-year-old Yennier Cano or not, they’ll need to add at least one high-leverage option this winter to take pressure off the righty, who threw a career-high 72 2/3 innings in 2023.
One or more of these five free agent right-handed relievers could find their way to Baltimore this winter.
Hicks burst onto the MLB scene as a rookie in 2018 with a 105 mph fastball. Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2019, his fastball hasn’t lost any juice, as it averaged 100.1 mph this past season.
But Hicks has never quite ascended to the upper echelon reserved for the game’s best relievers. Hicks registered a 3.67 ERA with the Cardinals to start the 2023 season before he was dealt to the Blue Jays at the deadline for a pair of prospects.
The 27-year-old is one of the few pitchers in baseball who can match Bautista’s velocity. If the O’s are hoping to replace one hard-throwing righty with another, Hicks gives them the best opportunity to do so.
López had a tumultuous 2023 season, during which he was traded by the White Sox to the Angels before being placed on waivers and claimed by the Guardians. Remarkably, the righty was able to adapt quickly to his changing surroundings, providing a 3.27 ERA over 66 innings on the season.
López’s strikeout percentages have crept up over the last three seasons, peaking at 30% this past year. But with more whiffs came more pitches outside the strike zone — his 12% walk rate ranked in the eighth percentile among qualified pitchers, according to Statcast.
Still on the right side of 30 until January, López is likely to fetch a nice deal this winter, but his lack of experience in closing games — only six career saves — could keep him in the Orioles’ price range.
Martinez is a fascinating story. After failing as a starter with the Rangers, Martinez went overseas in 2018 and rediscovered himself in the Japanese Pacific League. He signed with the Padres ahead of the 2022 season and proved valuable enough for the team to re-sign him.
Martinez has five offerings that he uses to induce soft contact, as the 33-year-old ranked in the 90th percentile in ground ball percentage, according to Statcast. That would play well in front of an Orioles infield that ranks among the league’s best in fielding.
Early in the offseason, Martinez declined his two-year, $16 million player option with the Padres, so he’ll likely ask for more than that in free agency. His ability to start games in a pinch — he started nine games in 2023 — could be especially enticing for the Orioles.
After racking up over 400 appearances over eight seasons with the Phillies, Neris signed a two-year, $17 million deal to join the Astros prior to the 2022 season. He was well worth the price tag, producing a career-best 1.71 ERA in 2023.
Though he hasn’t been a full-time closer since 2019, Neris has held opponents to a .205 average in high-leverage situations over the course of his career. With at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings each of the last eight seasons, he has a knack for generating whiffs at crucial times.
At 34, Neris would be the elder statesman in the Orioles’ bullpen, and his durability — almost 550 career innings — would be a godsend for manager Brandon Hyde.
Though he’s rarely been used as a closer, Ottavino has proven himself to be one of the more valuable relievers of the last decade. With almost 700 career innings, the former first-round pick showed few signs of age in 2023, pitching to a 3.21 ERA in 66 appearances with the Mets.
By declining his $6.75 million player option with the Mets, Ottavino is signaling his expectation of receiving a better offer. Still, 2024 will be his age-38 season, so teams will be hesitant to sign the veteran to a long-term deal. Ottavino might fit into the O’s sweet spot as a placeholder until Bautista returns in 2025.