NASHVILLE — Almost every ballclub needs to do its due diligence to sort out the offseason trade landscape around Major League Baseball. Baltimore is no different, but the Orioles are expected to do more in that realm than previous seasons as they look to bolster a roster that is coming off its first American League East championship in nearly a decade.
Two sources with knowledge of the Orioles’ offseason plans said the team is weighing its options in the trade market, with one of the sources noting that Baltimore is “active” in discussions for a starting pitcher. One such option, the source noted, is Chicago White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease; the Orioles held interest in Cease around the trade deadline and that interest has likely carried over into the offseason.
During this week’s winter meetings in Nashville, the Orioles front office will have a chance to exhibit how aggressive they plan to be this offseason in order to build off a 101-win season. General manager and Executive Vice President Mike Elias on Monday tamped down expectations of an immediate move when he said the club felt no pressure to make a deal during the meetings, but he also emphasized front office’s focus on pitching.
“We’ve expressed the desire to maybe come away with one rotation upgrade — or a rotation upgrade — this offseason, if we can,” Elias said. “But I can tell you, a few weeks in, they’re not growing on trees and it’s not easy. So we’re doing the best we can within the market. I’m hopeful that this pitching staff will look stronger at the end of the offseason than it did a month ago, but the way, shape or form or person that that’s coming in, I just don’t have a crystal ball right now.”
There are many avenues Baltimore could follow, including the free agent market. However, the options on the trade market are plentiful, and for an organization not known for shelling out the sort of major contracts most free agent starters command, a trade can offer the Orioles more payroll flexibility.
That’s particularly the case with Cease, who — if he was a free agent — would garner a deal that might rival that of Aaron Nola’s seven-year, $172 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. In a trade, however, Cease remains under team control for an additional two years. Cease is projected to earn just shy of $9 million in 2024, according to MLB Trade Rumors, which would be less than what Baltimore paid for one year of Kyle Gibson ($10 million).
Cease is coming off a year in which he recorded a 4.58 ERA in 177 innings, underachieving along with the White Sox. In 2022, the 27-year-old pitched to a 2.20 ERA.
There’s ample competition for Cease. As Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported, interest in Cease includes the Dodgers, Braves and Reds. There is arguably no stronger farm system than the one Baltimore has cultivated, though, which puts the Orioles in the driver’s seat should they wish to land Cease — which is no guarantee. At the trade deadline, when the Orioles sought pitching help, Elias said at the time he took “some very big swings,” though they didn’t connect.
“We were prepared to deploy every corner of our farm system within reason to make acquisitions,” Elias said, noting how some teams were “fixated” on a specific prospect that proved to turn Baltimore away from a deal.
It’s possible deals for a top-end starting pitcher this winter hit a similar bump in the road. Top-ranked prospect Jackson Holliday, who turned 20 on Monday, is almost assuredly on Baltimore’s no-trade list. There are other prospects and even major league regulars (such as Kyle Stowers or Jorge Mateo) who could intrigue a team enough instead.
Away from Cease, there are numerous trade options on the market. The Seattle Mariners traded outfielder Jarred Kelenic, first baseman Evan White and left-hander Marco Gonzales to the Atlanta Braves over the weekend, and The Athletic reported Monday that the Braves are looking to flip Gonzales in another trade. Gonzales wouldn’t be the top-end arm Baltimore might strive for, but the southpaw could be another target.
Gonzales could prove to be a fit because he’d bring experience to a rotation that has little of it. At 31, Gonzales pitched just 50 innings with a 5.22 ERA in 2023 but has surpassed the 200 inning-mark in a season before.
In addition, the Mariners have a Kelenic-sized hole in the outfield that could be filled by one of the Orioles’ glut of outfield prospects. The path to playing time in Baltimore is crowded, with Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander all slated to return (unless one or more of those veterans are dealt) while Stowers, Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad all appear ready for more regular playing time. Ryan McKenna and Sam Hilliard were also tendered contracts.
Among those Seattle starters: Logan Gilbert, Bryce Miller and Emerson Hancock. All three pitchers, 26 years and younger, have several more seasons of team control ahead.
“We’re as well-equipped as any team to rattle off prospect packages for any player,” Elias said. “That doesn’t mean we want to do that just because. We have the No. 1 farm system, we could theoretically outbid any team. At some point, it becomes a trade you don’t want to do.”
On the free agent front, left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, another player the Orioles explored at the trade deadline, is at the winter meetings to talk with organizations, Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported. Rodriguez, a former Orioles farmhand, posted a 3.30 ERA with the Detroit Tigers in 2023, making him one of the top free agents on the market.
The pitching additions Baltimore is expected to seek out also aren’t isolated just to starters. Closing pitcher Félix Bautista’s Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery will keep the right-hander out for the 2024 season, and the Orioles have expressed interest in a back-end arm that could help cover for Bautista’s absence.
MLB Network reported last week that right-hander Robert Stephenson has drawn interest from Baltimore, and the New York Post reported the Orioles also showed interest in left-hander Josh Hader and right-hander Jordan Hicks, among others.
“I do think everybody’s looking for pitching, and we will also,” manager Brandon Hyde said Monday on MLB Network. “Who we get, I’m not really sure. But I do think every team is looking for pitching, and we lost Félix. We’re not going to have Félix next year. That’s a big loss. So I’m sure we’re going to be in the pitching market.”
Elias recognizes it, too. So as the winter meetings begin, the Orioles’ top focus revolves around its pitching staff, and while there are free agents on the market, a trade could offer Baltimore the best value.
“We have a lot of ongoing conversations with teams that are going for it and just seeing if we match up parts,” Elias said. “Some of that is on the starting pitcher side, but a lot of it’s been on the bullpen side, too, and we’re exploring a bullpen addition. And a lot of those conversations have picked up on the trade front recently.”