There was no blood-letting when it came to the Orioles’ roster decisions on Friday, with every arbitration-eligible player either tendered a contract or agreeing to a 2024 contract.
The answer to why is simple: There was nothing forcing the front office to do anything else. With four open spots on the 40-man roster giving them plenty of flexibility, there was no need to make any kind of decision that would lose a player, even if the deadline provided little clarity as to how the rest of the winter would go.
The goals still likely remain the same: a starting pitcher for the front of the rotation and a reliever for the back end of the bullpen. There’s only a slight glimpse into how they might do that based on what they did last week.
From afar, it seems they’re continuing to do what they’ve tried to for years: hoard assets. They know there are a lot of different ways this offseason can play out, and if one of those is jettisoning many of their well-regarded prospects for experienced major league players, there’s a lot of value to having useful major league depth like shortstop Jorge Mateo and outfielder Ryan McKenna on the roster.
For the players who already agreed to contracts for 2024, including those two, outfielder Sam Hilliard, and left-hander Keegan Akin, there’s benefit, too. The alternative — not agreeing — may have meant ending up a free agent with no guarantee of what compensation would look like. These deals lock in a major league salary on a contract that probably includes an elevated minor league salary if the player ends up being outrighted off the roster; such a deal likely preceded Tucker Davidson being outrighted last week shortly after agreeing a 2024 contract.
The Orioles are probably happy to keep hold of them for now, especially where Mateo is concerned. His future is one of the murkier ones in the entire organization. There’s a world where Joey Ortiz comes up to take his place on the roster next year at a significant discount, or he’s otherwise frozen out of the infield with Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg, and so many others having claims to more playing time based on their production. He could also be required to reprise his shortstop responsibilities if Westburg, Ortiz, or any other infielder is traded as part of a deal for pitching.
There’s also the possibility that Mateo goes the other way in a deal for a major league piece. The Atlanta Braves’ acquisition last week of reliever Aaron Bummer for five players — four of whom were on their roster but none of whom projected to have major roles — served as a reminder that major league pieces can be attractive to teams who are rebuilding. The White Sox prioritized filling holes on their major league roster instead of prospects in the deal. Considering the Orioles could be talking to them about starter Dylan Cease, having major league talent to offer can help get a deal done.
Past non-tenders under general manager Mike Elias — be it early ones like Caleb Joseph and Tim Beckham or later ones like Hanser Alberto — happened because the Orioles didn’t think they were worth whatever salary the players would command in arbitration. No one fell below that threshold this year.
But more meaningful for this winter is the part where the Orioles continue to build their proverbial chip pile as they wait to decide which hand to play. This was the case last year as they looked at their top-ranked farm system and the player development staff they assembled and decided that there was more upside to letting the players improve for another year and possibly increase their value — to either the Orioles or an acquiring team. In some cases, those paid off. Coby Mayo, Samuel Basallo, and Heston Kjerstad all enhanced their status in the last year. Others, like Colton Cowser, Connor Norby, and to an extent Ortiz, have not.
Eventually, it will be time to push those chips in — even the ones who agreed to inexpensive contracts. There are countless different avenues to making the next edition of the Orioles better than the last. So far, though, they’re just trying to do whatever they can to reinforce the roster and make sure there aren’t many ways the club can be worse.